Violetta, the heroine of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” is one of the iconic roles of the operatic repertoire, the measuring stick by which almost all sopranos are judged. Singing the role for many is an indication for them that they have “arrived” in the opera world. It is so imbued with depth and intensity that years and years of performance reveal greater degrees of nuance in different interpreters.
Corinne Winters loves the role of Violetta. It is one of her warhorses and a role that she identifies with on an emotional and deeply personal level.
Now she will get three opportunities, 11 performances, to explore the role in the first half of 2017 at three different opera houses in three different productions starting on Jan. 14.
The ‘Traviata Tour’ Starts in Seattle
The first stop on Winters’ “Traviata Tour” is just days away as Winters makes her house debut in Seattle. Fortunately for Winters the unfamiliarity of the house will be met with a familiarity onstage as the soprano takes on a production that she worked on four years ago.
Back in 2013 she worked with director Peter Konwitschny on the role, one of the most difficult productions of the opera as Verdi’s middle period masterpiece is presented without a single intermission.
The greatest challenge of taking on “La Traviata” for most sopranos is the breadth of vocal challenges Verdi demands of the singer. In Act 1, she sings like a coloratura soprano. In Act 2, the range has dropped into more standard lyric soprano territory with some big dramatic outbursts. In Act 3, as she lays on her deathbed, Violetta is asked to use her speaking voice and then sings in a far lower register. In essence, the soprano has to be so versatile as to be three different productions in one evening.
Konwitschny’s production, which is directed by Mika Blauensteiner in the revival, makes those demands in a tight two hours without a real break for the singer.
Winters, in speaking with OperaWire, noted that it requires a special kind of stamina to take on this vocal challenge.
“I equate singing and opera to something most people know about, which is fitness. Anyone can run a marathon if they have the right training program. And that is exactly what this is,” she noted.
The first time she did the production, she developed a routine that required arriving at rehearsal early and warming up properly. Afterward she would sing out as much as possible during rehearsal.
While most singers avoid this practice so as to protect their voices from wearing down, Winters noted that it was essential to “get the muscles used to the demands of the opera. Your muscles gain strength and flexibility and know what to do. That creates stamina. I mark, but only when the production is not particularly challenging.”
But for the soprano the greatest challenge lies not in the stamina but in the dramatic emphasis of the production.
“When I first did it, it was only second production of this role and my first experience with German regie theatre,” she explained. “[Konwitschny] puts a lot of emphasis on character relationships and that requires a certain heightened emotion where the voice can suffer. To sing beautifully all the time you must always be relaxed but to do a production like this you have to give a certain level of intensity that makes the two incongruent.
“The first time I did it, I threw myself around on stage and in my opinion, I let my singing suffer a little bit. This time I want to do the production justice but I am more protective of my vocal artistry,” she continued. “I put a lot of time into preparing and training it. I treat it well and do my best to keep it a well-oiled machine so I have to do that justice as well.
That has been my biggest struggle. Finding a way to keep that dramatic intensity while maintaining vocal integrity.”
A Brief Respite From the ‘Traviata Tour’
Once she overcomes that challenge she gets time to take on Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” in Seattle, a role that she will be singing for the first time. The work also represents the first Czech opera that the soprano attempts, presenting a lot of challenges before resuming her Traviata-filled 2017.
Winters cites doing other works in Russian as “helpful” though she notes that learning the role of Katya has forced her into a new rhythm of working.
“When you start out, it is an overwhelming challenge because there are so many consonants and some words don’t even have vowels,” she revealed. “But I have had a lot of Czech coaches to help me.”
Her work on the role started back in September when she was making her Royal Opera House debut in “Così fan tutte.”
“I started working on it in between performances of Così. I would spend two hours on weekends with my Czech coach and then go over what I learned during the week,” she explained. The coaching has not stopped and she revealed that she is still meeting with Czech coaches in Seattle to continue what remains a challenging endeavor.
“You learn something and then you have to add a layer. You don’t just learn it and then it’s there. You have to keep building on it,” the soprano explained.
But the work has been truly gratifying.
“The music is so gorgeous and the story is beautiful. And the character is to die for,” she enthused. “It reminds me of [Richard] Strauss in the sense that it is very emotional without being overly sentimental. It just hits you at the core.
“Katya is so feminine and subtle and her mad scene has its own vibe,” she explained further. “The music is huge, but it paints a lot of subtle colors. It is a massive undertaking to find all those shadings the first time and do it justice.”
Winters makes her debut as Katya on Feb. 26 for three performances.
The Final Stops on the ‘Traviata Tour’ – San Diego & London
The Traviata tour continues on April 22 in San Diego where Winters will also be making a house debut. And then her tour climaxes on June 27 in her dream come true – London.
Winters made her Royal Opera House debut last fall in Mozart’s venerable classic but Winters notes that this undertaking is likely to be both more stressful in some ways and less stressful in others.
For “Così fan tutte" she was able to work with a group of young singers alongside Semyon Bychov, who had never conducted the work. “We were all pretty much in the same boat so I didn’t feel so out of place,” she remarked.
And while she put a lot of pressure on herself to make the debut perfect, the magnificence of taking on Richard Eyre’s iconic production gives her a mix of butterflies.
“It was the first opera DVD that I owned. It’s been my dream to be involved in it, much less be Violetta, it’s a dream come true. I don’t know how I’m going to handle that being my reality,” she enthused. “To just be in a gorgeous gown singing iconic music on that stage… That is the definition of happiness for me.”
But she is also aware that getting starstruck is not the best strategy for success.
“I have to revere the moment but then put it aside. If I start to think that Fleming has done done and Gheorghiu has done it and Netrebko has done it, then I just put more pressure on myself. While they are so iconic and amazing, I need to think about doing it my way. I need to have confidence in what I bring to the role.”
So how does one take on the same role three times in one year without ever growing tired of it. Or at the very least feeling the need to take more time between performances of it?
“I connect with Violetta so much. She is multi-layered and life experience adds more to the role every time I take it on,” she revealed. “I understand more what she does in Act 2 when she leaves Alfredo whereas four or five years ago I was always frustrated that she just let Germont win. I would say, ‘They should have just run off together.’ Now I understand it better because I’ve lived and seen how things work.”
She noted that she particularly identifies with the courtesan’s struggle between her public persona and personal needs at the end of Act 1.
“I have a struggle similar to hers. It’s obviously not about whether I want to be a courtesan or not, but there is a personal and professional struggle,” Winters elaborated. “Every profession has its demands but this one has unusual ones, especially for women. I have career aspirations but at the same time I am human and I have personal goals. I have a partner who I want a future with and I want to have children at some point. That is a real internal struggle for me. That makes her struggle really personal for me.”
Winters’ 2017 “Traviata Tour” ends on July 4, but the soprano noted that there will be more stops on her journey with Verdi’s famous heroine.