Opera restaged for modern times

Five years on, the Singapore Lyric Opera is restaging Verdi's La Traviata, now setting the 19th-century tragedy in present-day Paris. The star-crossed love between a courtesan and young nobleman plays out at the Esplanade Theatre from Friday to next Tuesday.

Australian director Stephen Barlow, 42, who helmed the 2008 production, says this year's staging is significantly different, even if many of the main cast members are the same.

Hong Kong-born soprano Nancy Yuen reprises the lead female role of Violetta and Korean singer Kee Chang Song again takes the part of her lover's stern father Giorgio Germont.Changes include having Japanese singer Kota Murakami as the young male lead Alfredo, whose family forces the lovers to separate, while Joshua Kangming Tan conducts the Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

In the 2008 production, Korean tenor Lee Jae Wook played Alfredo while Chinese conductor Eric Zhu led the Philharmonic Orchestra and Lyric Opera Chorus. Barlow says in an interview that Verdi's 1853 opera was based on a novel by Alexander Dumas written during the same period, La Dame Aux Camelias (The Lady Of The Camelias).

He says: "When Verdi wrote the opera, he was attracted to the fact that it was a modern story and he wanted the opera to be staged in 1853, in modern dress. But that would have been too controversial for the audience."

Given the chance to restage the opera, he decided to set the story in contemporary Paris instead of the end-19th century period he chose five years ago.

"It's a modern story, it could be set in any decade. I've seen it in the news all the time, families break down because of the son's or daughter's relationship."

The opera will open at a modern-day party in Paris with sets and costumes by Christopher Chua reflecting the contemporary setting. Cast and director decline to give away more but insist that the Parisian setting is crucial to the story.

"Paris is what kills Violetta, she dies of Paris," Barlow says. In the opera, gossip about Violetta's unsavoury past dooms her relationship with Alfredo. Yuen, who describes herself as being "on the wrong side of 40", finds the role of Violetta "heart-ripping" and, in 2008, had to steel herself in order not to give in to emotion during the scene where she bade farewell to Alfredo.

She says: "Every time I rehearse it, it still brings tears to my eyes. Whether or not we set it 200 years before, human beings are human beings and people will judge others by where they come from."

Murakami, 32, says he first studied the role of Alfredo 10 years ago, fresh out of the Tokyo College of Music, when he was about the same age as the character. He adds: "There were so many new things after graduation, every day I was nervous. I could understand his mind, how it felt to be young and to be loved."

When asked whether Violetta is a bit of a cougar, Yuen laughs and says: "I never thought about it. His character is chasing mine. Perhaps it's the confidence and the looks that attract him."

Talk soon turns to backstage rituals. All the singers try not to eat before going on stage.

Song, 43, says: "I remember when I did La Traviata once before, I ate a banana and it was indigestible." Last seen here as womaniser Don Giovanni in the Lyric Opera's staging of the Mozart opera last year, he has been in more than 10 productions of La Traviata. He thinks Verdi's music better suits his tones now that he is growing older.

Murakami swears by fruit juice to lubricate the voice and Barlow suggests he try pineapple. Little things like these make all the difference, say the cast and director, as it is the singers' voices and acting ability that carry the show. Barlow points out: "They won't be wearing mikes."

And Verdi's music is challenging, as Yuen demonstrates, singing a few bars of the repetitious background melody from the first act before breaking into lyrical song.

"It's really up to the singers to make it work," she says with a laugh. "That's why I eat 2½ hours before the show. When you're nervous, you keep burping and it's really difficult."


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