It’s not over until the fat lady sings

By Martha Spalding

Whenever operas came into mind, I thought of images of a fat lady wearing a Viking helmet singing so loudly that audience members’ glasses were shattering.

After watching the opera, “La Traviata” at the Tryon Festival Theatre of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, I realized how mistaken my fat lady impressions were.

“La Traviata,” the woman who strayed, is the first opera I’ve ever seen. It didn’t feel like I was being shouted at throughout the entire three-hour performance. Also, I was surprised that almost all of the seats in the auditorium were filled. People of all ages were there, dispelling my expectations of gray-haired people in suits.

After taking my seat in the fourth row, the lights dimmed and the pit orchestra started warming up. At once, the main character, Violetta Valery, started singing with no microphone and her voice sounded clear. It was amazing how all the cast members could project their voices without the help of electronics.

Set in 1913, “La Traviata” is basically a story about love between Violetta and Alfredo Germont. Alfredo professes his love for Violetta, a courtesan or prostitute, and after some internal conflicts, Violetta moves to the country with Alfredo. They live together for three months before Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, tells Violetta she must secretly leave his son so that the family name won’t be disgraced.

Violetta leaves Alfredo and the countryside so she can return to her former boyfriend and partying lifestyle. Alfredo goes to the party and says he won’t leave unless Violetta goes with him. She declines saying she doesn’t love him, and the guests scorn Alfredo after he insults Violetta at the party. About a month later, Violetta is very ill with only a few hours to live. Before she passes away, Alfredo returns and the two reconcile. Violetta says she senses new life within her, and then suddenly collapses onto the floor. Violetta dies with her love by her side.

The opera was sung in Italian with English subtitles on a screen at the very top of the stage. Even though almost all of the lines were sung, it was still relatively easy to generally understand what the characters were saying. The performers expressed so much emotion through their songs that little extra gestures or facial expressions were needed.

But with the placement of the subtitles, it was hard to focus on both the subtitles and the stage at the same time. Often, I just became so in awe with the visuals and vocal timbre that it was easy to forget all about the English meanings I was missing.

This is where the program notes came in handy, along with the two 20-minute intermissions. Since getting lost in the Italian song was my worst fear heading into “La Traviata,” I read up on the notes for each scene to make sure everything was understood beforehand. I also re-read the notes to clarify any confusing scenes.

As sad as it sounds, “La Traviata” was also the first theater performance I have ever seen at the University. While I anticipated some level of professionalism, the show was nothing like my high school’s take on “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” The sets weren’t incredibly elaborate, but all of the actors’ stage presence commanded my attention.

It was easy to feel for the characters even though I couldn’t directly understand what they were saying. With the passion in his voice, I wanted Alfredo to love me just as fervently as he loved Violetta. At that point, I didn’t need to read the subtitles any longer, I just wanted to listen to the pain in his voice over losing Violetta and her enthusiasm over embracing him one last time.

If you too hold the impression that all operas have extremely high-pitched singing and Scandinavian headwear, you should go see the next opera at Krannert. You may not fall in love with it like I did, but you’ll at least gain a new appreciation for this genre of performance.