“There’s nothing extraneous, it’s the perfect first opera,” says singer Michael Hewitt as we wander through the labyrinthine halls of the Kennedy Center’s backstage. It’s Monday night and the energy is frenzied, makeup artists swap people out of their chairs every few minutes, wigs are carted around corners at surprising speeds and cast members walk around half dressed, some sporting thick period tops with casual slacks and shoes on underneath. They’re preparing for one of the many technical rehearsals before Saturday’s premiere of La Traviata. Composed by Verdi in 1853, it’s both a fundamental opera for anyone with interest in the genre and a prime example of all of the things most people hate about opera. There are prologued deaths, serious misunderstanding that could be solved with straight forward conversations and lots of fainting women.
It’s also a sublime story. One that holds a magnifying glass to the heart wrenching obstacles that keep people from finding (and holding onto) love. The opera follows the Violetta Valéry, a famed Parisian courtesan, as she celebrates her newly regained health with a party at her salon. As she kicks it with her flavor of the week, the good time Baron Douphol, Violetta is introduced to Alfredo Germont. As the partying gets out of hand, Violetta begins to feel faint and tells everyone to enjoy the party without her, but Alfredo stays nearby. Once they are alone, he professes his love to her and while Violetta is cold at first, she gives Alfredo a flower and tells him to come back to her as soon as the flower wilts (something I will absolutely be doing to every human I date from this point on, the girl had moves).
Many months later, Violetta and Alfredo are living in the countryside, enjoying their newfound love. Alfredo heads out to Paris to deal with some business and Violetta is ambushed by Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, who claims her bad reputation and dalliance with his son is ruining his young daughter’s marriage prospects. Violetta reluctantly agrees to leave Alfredo to appease his family and just as she’s writing her break up letter, Alfredo returns from Paris. In a fit of melancholy tinged romance, Violetta busts out one of the best aria’s of all time, “Amami Alfredo” and leaves in a hurry. From that point on, things get much more sad and much more complicated, with the show culminating in Violetta’s drawn out demise (everyone dies in opera, this isn’t a spoiler).
It also happens to be stacked with amazing music, from the jaunty party scenes at the beginning of the story, to the haunting death music of the final act. Which is one of the reasons why everyone backstage is so thrilled. La Traviata is a high energy opera that pivots from breathless joy to pure tragedy with ease, and minutes before rehearsal starts, the cast is channeling that intensity. Which is why I’m camped out in a dressing room talking about 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying with Hewitt, who plays the Baron Douphol and Samuel Weiser, AKA Marquis d’Obigny. In full makeup, both of the men have been given delicate strokes of grey through their facial hair and sideburns. I ask how they feel about the dye job and they both laugh, with Hewitt adding, “I hope this is what I look like when I actually age.” The conversation shifts and they both tell me about their favorite bass singer, Samuel Ramey, with both of them explaining that there was no better Don Giovanni. Somebody pulls out an iPhone and cues up Banquo’s aria from Macbeth, “Come dal ciel precipita” which is not that dissimilar from Hewitt’s favorite 50 Cent song, “Many Men.” Both have a similar gravitas and a thoroughly morbid subject matter.
Across the hall is Venera Gimadieva, who plays the delicate and dynamic Violetta. It’s her 13th production of La Traviata and while she’s played many roles in this opera, her favorite is always Violetta. But we quickly move away from talk of the opera as she tells me all about her favorite Russian rapper, MiyaGi, who she would love to work with. Soon after we run into Alexandria Shiner, who plays Violetta’s maid Annina. Immediately, we begin talking about Violetta’s final death scene, “I’m one of the few people who is there when she dies,” explains Shiner, who adds, “The final scene is the most heart breaking, it’s about the fragility of a life lived.”
After chatting about Wagner and Shiner’s favorite musician (Ella Fitzgerald), we’re pulled away to explore a part of the Kennedy Center I’ve never seen, the orchestra pit. With principal cellist Amy Frost Baumgarten and violinist Karen Lowry-Tucker by our sides, we slip under the mesh roof of the pit (“We have that so we don’t get a bottle to the head,” says Baumgarten. “Someone threw a sword once,” adds Lowry-Tucker), watching as the clarinets warm up. “I’ve always loved playing Traviata,” says Baumgarten, “It has the emotional extremes, misunderstanding, pride, jealousy.” Lowry-Tucker agrees, adding that she’s such a fan of opera, that she travels around the country and sees them in her spare time. “I like to go see an opera at the Met before we do it,” she explains.
It’s been 10 years since the Washington National Opera has done La Traviata, so they’re especially excited. “Our conductor is steeped in Italian tradition, so the music is driving everything forward,” says Baumgarten, talking about La Traviata‘s whiplash-like pace. “There are some sharp turns.” Despite the frantic energy, Baumgarten and Lowry-Tucker love playing in this orchestra. “Our orchestra is social and supportive,” says Baumgarten, while Lowry-Tucker adds, “It’s like a family, you don’t like everyone, but you love everyone.” Sitting at Baumgarten’s seat in the pit, you can feel exactly what they mean. There is deafening sound and movement all around you, but looking out into that empty, darkened theater, there’s also a slice of serenity. To be a piece in this complex show, to work with a whole cast of über-talented musicians and singers, it can’t be anything short of thrilling.
Before we’re ushered out to catch the beginning of rehearsal, we stop to admire Lowry-Tucker’s violin. It has a beautiful honeyed finish and while it certainly looks old, I would have never guessed it was built in 1783. As she tells us about an airline steward who once dropped it while she was asleep, she also clarifies that while she bought it for $25,000, at this point it’s worth around $150,000. Even though I’m not touching it, or standing especially close to it, I’ve never been more nervous in my life.
As we cut through the backstage, the intercom crackles to life, “Places in 5 minutes for the top of Act I… If anyone is listening,” the voice jokes. “That feels right,” says a woman as a rich dark and curly wig is fitted on her head as we pass by another long table of makeup and costume artists. As we pop out by the stage, a woman jovially yells, “I’m mean, I’m not afraid to punch people!” When she meets my eyes she smiles and says, “You can quote me on that.”
While we settle into one of the first few rows, the orchestra winds down to silence. The lights cast gold and blue shadows on the set, which looks like the inside of a jewelry box with it’s tall, intricate walls. The actors take their places and we’re quickly transported from hospice to the climax of a Parisian party. From Violetta’s first gasp of love to her final timid breath, it’s nothing but madness and pleasure.