If you want to know how big an impact “La Traviata” has had on the life and career of soprano Corinne Winters, take a peek at her back.
Last year, the London-based singer had a large camellia blossom tattooed on her right shoulder blade. The fast-wilting flower is symbolic of the opera’s beautiful but doomed heroine Violetta Valéry, whom Winters has played to great acclaim all over the world. She’ll take on the role for the seventh time next weekend when San Diego Opera presents the Giuseppe Verdi classic at the San Diego Civic Theatre.
Winters, 34, had her career breakthrough playing Violetta four years ago with English National Opera, and now she seeks out the role whenever and wherever she can find it. The first reason is the challenge it offers to her as a singer.
“It’s everything to me,” said Winters, who grew up Maryland and studied in Philadelphia, but moved to London two years ago because much of her work was overseas. “It’s the rangiest thing I sing. It requires vocal heft and agility. It goes from the softest of piano to fortissimo. Every time I play it I peel back more layers.”
The other reason, she said, is more personal. Violetta is a courtesan who falls in love with the younger, hot-headed gentleman Alfredo. When his father, Germont, finds out, he cuts off Alfredo’s fortune. Violetta sells everything she owns to support Alfredo, but his jealousy ends their relationship. Eventually he returns to her side, but by then she’s dying from tuberculosis and fading as fast as a fresh-cut camellia blossom.
During the opera, Violetta has to choose between her lavish lifestyle, her health and her heart. Winters said she’s never been faced with choices so extreme, but as a woman pursuing the difficult and often-lonely career of opera singing, she can relate.
“I came to some crossroads in my life, too, and I can understand her in many ways,” she said. “My career took all my focus and passion for many years, and I wasn’t willing to set it aside for a long time.”
Fortunately Winters can now have both. This summer, she’ll marry Adam Smith, an English tenor she met a few years ago in Belgium. They now make their home in London’s Islington neighborhood. But before the wedding, she’s got one more Violetta to play at Covent Garden in June, and next season two Violettas are already scheduled.
Winters’ 2013 breakthrough with English National Opera was in a stripped-down, edgy, one-act version of “La Traviata” helmed by German director Peter Konwitschny (which they reprised in January at Seattle Opera). By contrast, San Diego Opera’s production will be full-length, lavish and grand in scope.
The production was rented from L.A. Opera, where it premiered in 2014. Marta Domingo, the production’s original director and designer, is re-creating her directorial concept in San Diego.
Domingo’s production moves the opera’s story forward from 1850 to America in the roaring 1920s. Violetta is a carefree flapper who hosts boozy parties in her gilded art deco apartment as well as at a Harlem jazz club. Even though French courtesans were history by the 1920s, Domingo said she sees many parallels between to the two eras.
“The flapper era came after World War I, when so many beautiful boys died and young people faced so much death and devastation,” said Domingo, a Mexican-born soprano who has been working as an opera director for more than 20 years. “The flappers were far from being courtesans, but with their licentious, scandalous behavior and total disdain for authority, they had a lot in common. … They had the attitude of wanting to live for today because there might not be a tomorrow.”
In the 19th century, French courtesans were never seen as simple prostitutes or mistresses. As the kept women of very wealthy men, they lived in luxurious settings, were outgoing social butterflies and were known as trend-setters. That’s not much different from the girls of the flapper era. Domingo said many were from wealthy families and could afford to party year-round and break societal rules by openly taking lovers, drinking, smoking, wearing revealing clothing and bobbing their hair.
Domingo has been married since 1962 to world-famous tenor Placido Domingo . Together they have two children, eight grandchildren and four apartments (in New York, L.A., Vienna and his hometown of Madrid). The pair are practically inseparable, and Marta said she often turns down directing offers because she likes attending all of her husband’s directing, conducting and singing engagements around the world.
But she won’t turn down an offer to reprise her “La Traviata,” which she calls the ultimate operatic love story.
“Where do you find a heroine with such generosity? The story is perfect, the characters are perfect. I love it,” Domingo said.
Her design was inspired by an ivory and bronze sculpture at the Manhattan apartment where she and her husband have lived for 30 years. The graceful dancer statue was sculpted by the late Demétre Chiparus, a Parisian who was one of the most important figures of the art deco era.
The production’s costumes, scarves, caps and many other scenic elements have Chiparus touches. Some of the other design influences are Hollywood’s silent film era and the exoticism of Egyptian, Aztec and Mayan fashion and architectural motifs. There’s even a full-size 1920s-era car that rolls onstage in one scene.
“I have been in love with the art deco movement all my life,” Domingo said. “It’s one of the most beautiful eras for art, clothing and design. And the women of the time were so graceful and elegant.”
David Bennett, San Diego Opera’s general director, said local audiences will be wowed by the production.
“It’s visually stunning, beautiful and alluring,” Bennett said. “And because it was directed and designed by the same person, there’s a cohesiveness to it that I know the audiences will love.”
The production features an all-American cast and conductor. Starring as Violetta’s lover Alfredo is Jesús Garcia, who like Winters is making his company debut. Stephen Powell returns as Alfredo’s father, Germont. Peabody Southwell, who played the title role in San Diego Opera’s “The Tragedy of Carmen” in March, plays Violetta’s friend Flora.
The opera will be conducted by David Agler, also making his company debut. Agler is the artistic director of the Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland. Before that, he was music director of Vancouver Opera and principal conductor for Australian Opera.
Winters said she’s enjoying her first visit to San Diego. She walks to rehearsals from an apartment in Little Italy and hopes to squeeze in visits to the San Diego Zoo and Old Town before she leaves. With a schedule now booked years in advance, she doesn’t have much time for spontaneity, but her tattoo provides some inspiration.
“I’m a major planner, but I build in time for spontaneous decisions so I can live in the moment like Violetta,” she said.