'Traviata' role a benchmark for local soprano

Over the years, Juneau audiences have had an opportunity to experience Puccini’s “Tosca,” Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” Bizet’s “Carmen” and Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” among other operatic classics. Now we’re about to add Verdi’s “La Traviata” to that list, possibly for the first time.


This weekend, the Juneau Lyric Opera, in partnership with the Amalga Chamber Orchestra and the JLO Chorus, will present two performances of this famous work, which will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. Performances will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Juneau Douglas High School auditorium.

In addition to experiencing the work of one of opera’s undisputed master composers, Juneau will have a chance to hear soprano Kathleen Wayne perform as Violetta Valéry, a role known for its technical and dramatic challenges, and one which Wayne said she’s been working toward for many years.

“It seems like the culmination of a lot of roles,” Wayne said Tuesday before rehearsal. “Every scene is tough. I go up to high E flats, which is upper stratosphere, down to low notes. So it was great that I had all those roles prior to this. When I started with Lyric Opera, late ‘80s, we were doing Gilbert and Sullivan and those were perfect roles for me as a beginning operetta singer to learn from.

“This is what I would consider grand opera — the height of opera.”

Roughly translated as “the lost one,” “La Traviata” follows the story of courtesan Violetta, who meets and falls for Alfredo. When Alfredo’s father discovers the affair, he demands that Violetta break things off for the honor of the family, which she reluctantly does. Later, Violetta sees Alfredo at a party and refuses his requests to leave with him; they quarrel. Soon thereafter she heads downhill mentally and physically, as consumption overtakes her. Alfredo at last returns for a reconciliation in the final scene, having discovered his father’s request, but it is too late for Violetta and she dies in her lover’s arms.

Wayne, one of Juneau’s most accomplished singers, said her daughters have gotten used to seeing their mother fall in love and expire on stage (among her many roles are the title role in “Carmen” and Mimi in “La Bohème”).

“Their first question was ‘How do you die this time?’” Wayne said with a laugh.

Wayne has been singing the big soprano aria from La Traviata (“Sempre libera”) for about 15 years, and more recently added some of the duets to her repertoire. Her love for the work and desire to perform as Violetta swayed others at Juneau Lyric Opera to take on this production, despite concerns about being able to stage something this big and complex. Producer Scarlett Adam said the difficulties include the large principal cast, huge chorus (who must sing in Italian) and orchestra, as well as set pieces and costumes -- all told a project that, if done in full, would likely demand a budget well into five figures. Instead, JLO decided to offer the opera to Juneau as a semi-staged production. The principals will be in costume, but the set pieces and choreography will be minimal, and the orchestra and chorus will be on stage with the performers.

“We decided if we want to do it we just have to do it in the best way possible and really focus on the voices and the music. That’s really the important thing, I think, when it comes to opera,” Adam said.

The lead male role will be played by visiting tenor Mark Kratz as Violetta’s lover, Alfredo Germont. Kratz, from Sonoma Calif., said Wayne’s involvement was a draw for him in taking on the project, after being invited in by musical director William Todd Hunt.

“When I found out Kathleen was going to be Violetta I was very happy about that,” he said. “It’s a high caliber role and she’s a very high quality soprano.”

Kratz was first in Juneau seven years ago to perform as the Beast in Juneau Lyric Opera’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Tamino in Opera to Go’s “Arctic Magic Flute,” both produced in 2007. More recently, he was a featured soloist with the National Opera Orchestra at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. He said he’s been wanting to come back to Juneau for years, having been impressed by the strength of our arts community and the quality of our vocal performers.

“I’m not usually involved in productions that have that much community influence, where the whole orchestra -- besides maybe a few people -- and the whole chorus are local friends, all of the leads have some kind of local connection. It’s great -- and it’s high caliber too. Most people in Juneau would need to travel quite far out of Juneau to hear other voices like this. It’s why I came back. There’s really something in the water.” He laughed.

In addition to Wayne and Kratz, the cast features former Juneau resident Philippe Demerval, now based in Anchorage, as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. Demerval’s most recent performance was as a soloist with the Juneau Symphony in their 50th anniversary concert of Beethoven’s Ninth. He said, for him, much of the work in performing Verdi comes in the emotional challenges the music requires.

“I would say with Verdi, the complexity is not so much the vocal work. What makes the vocal work difficult is the constant need to sustain high emotions,” he said.

Verdi’s ability to communicate complex and subtle emotions through his operas is one of the things that sets him apart from many other famous composers in the genre, Demerval said, as is his thorough understanding of the human voice.

“It’s wonderful that he knew the human voice so well -- not just the human voice but human voices. He was a master of the various human ranges and he wrote for them. .... The challenge is to serve what he wrote, which is tremendously lyrical, tremendously enthralling in its musicality. It takes quite a lot of energy to serve that.”

Demerval said the opera offers “epitomal” roles for its leads, Violetta in particular.

“The longest role in all of opera for a soprano is Suzanne from ‘Marriage of Figaro.’ I think it’s 45 minutes in total. Kathleen has less than that with this opera, a lot less — I think it’s 15 minutes. But they’re going to take more out of her than three or four ‘Figaros.’"

The “Traviata” cast also includes Sara Radke-Brown (the new executive director of the Juneau Symphony) as Violetta’s friend, Flora Bervoix, Jessica Skiba as Annina, Brett Crawford as Gastone, Jack Brandt as Giuseppe, David Miller as Baron Douphol, Tom Melville as Marquis d’Obigny and Wade Rogers as Doctor Grenville. William Todd Hunt conducts the Amalga Chamber Orchestra and serves as music director, and JLO’s new executive director Rosie Humphrey is choral director.

Producer Adam said even people who don’t think they like opera will likely recognize the music.

“It’s funny, most people say ‘I don’t like opera.’ They have this concept of what it is. But then you’re surprised when you hear some of this music and you can hum along to it because you’ve been hearing it forever in elevators and grocery stores. It’s really quite beautiful.”

Performances will be Saturday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 29 at 3 p.m. at the JDHS auditorium. Admission is $20, or $15 for seniors and students. Tickets are available at www.juneauopera.org, www.jahc.org, or at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, Hearthside Books, Rainy Retreat or at the door.

For more information, visit juneauopera.org


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