You could forgive opera stage director Alain Gauthier for having La Traviata’s famously catchy “Drinking Song” duet stuck in his head from morning to night. For more than a year, he has been dwelling in Jazz Age Paris and the dramatic world of doomed courtesan Violetta and her lovesick Alfredo.
Usually, in the world of opera, directors move from project to project. But because of an unusual collaboration between Vancouver Opera and four other Canadian companies—Pacific Opera Victoria, Manitoba Opera, Edmonton Opera, and Opéra de Montréal—he’s had a more than yearlong affair with this new production. In each city, there’s a new cast, but the combined resources have allowed the companies to reimagine Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 romantic classic in the music halls of 1920s Paris.
The splendour, the storytelling, and the singing: it’s not something Gauthier ever gets sick of. “I’m surrounded by Violetta and Alfredo all the time,” he admits with a laugh, “but it’s very exciting to go city to city and discover new things about it. To be able to travel with your own production is very unique in opera.
“It’s a fabulous opportunity for me, because how many times do you get to work on the same work with different artists?” he continues. “They all bring something new to the role. For me, it’s like a gift—I’m receiving a lot from all those artists.”
In other cities, the leading duo have been new to their roles. But here, in Vancouver’s rendition, Gauthier works with two Canadian artists who are well-acquainted with Violetta and Alfredo: Emily Dorn and Andrew Haji (Nemorino in last year’s L’Elisir d’Amore). The major role of Alfredo’s father is played by baritone Chenye Yuan, last seen here in VO’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul and Nixon in China.
“It’s nice because they’re kind of relaxed in the roles, in a way,” Gauthier observes. “These are very tough parts for singers—especially Violetta. It’s a huge role, asking for a range not only vocally but emotionally. So having done it before gives a certain confidence to the singer.
“Emily knows the rough corners of the role, and I’m getting to know the role well too,” he adds. “In the first act, she’s treating it in a really light way—she’s like the queen of Paris, with ‘The Drinking Song’ and the aria at the end of Act 1. But then her story gets more and more dramatic and goes in all sorts of registers. So it’s quite a challenge for a singer!”
Pooling resources provides a model that allows Canadian opera companies to stay viable, making it possible to stage a lavish work like this Traviata. “Especially if you want to do all the sets and costumes, there are not many companies in Canada that can even afford one production a year,” Gauthier explains. “So if they put all their effort together, they can afford this kind of production.”
But a cross-Canada project like this one also requires all of those companies to agree on an artistic approach—with Gauthier as the unifying force. Many of the five opera houses he was dealing with had already staged versions of La Traviata—both traditional and modern. “It was quite a challenge to find a setting that would satisfy everyone,” Gauthier admits.
The key was finding inspiration in the era of Josephine Baker, when the American music-hall star scandalized Parisian society but also became a superstar—causing class clashes similar to those over the courtesan of Verdi’s 19th-century setting. Paris’s Jazz Age also offered rich opportunities for costumes and set design, producing the vision of sequined flapper dresses and deep-red curtains conjured by Stratford Festival veteran Christina Poddubiuk.
Gauthier calls the end result a “win-win” for companies and audiences alike—and an artistic adventure that has kept him inspired from Winnipeg to Victoria and Vancouver, and back to his own stomping grounds at Opéra de Montréal.
“The more I’m doing it, the more I’m loving it. I’m not surprised, because when you get deeper and deeper into a work you start to like it even more,” he says. “Sometimes you find an idea and it feels perfect.”
Vancouver Opera presents La Traviata on Thursday and Saturday (October 17 and 19) and on October 24 and 27.