It seems we’re all suckers for a fallen woman.
From Fantine in “Les Miserables” to Vivian Ward in the film “Pretty Woman,” we all root for the redemption of a good-hearted woman who has made bad decisions. The fate of Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” (which means “The Fallen Woman”) is especially heart-tugging.
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will perform Verdi’s romantic tragedy for four performances in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre beginning Saturday.
“La Traviata” is based on the Alexandre Dumas play “The Lady of the Camellias,” which Verdi had seen performed in Paris in 1852. The story of the consumptive courtesan, Violetta, beloved by the wealthy Alfredo Germont and scorned by his bourgeois father, appealed to Verdi’s natural theatrical instincts.
“Verdi was definitely using the concept of the sensational to sell tickets,” said Deborah Sandler, general director of Lyric Opera. “We can’t read a newspaper, we can’t get into any sort of social media these days without reading some story that doesn’t have some sensational aspect to it. He’s doing what we see all the time. People see a play, see a movie and turn it into an opera.”
The opera’s first performance at La Fenice in Venice was, as Verdi himself admitted, a failure. The audience jeered the soprano playing Violetta as being too old and overweight to play a young woman dying of consumption, the 19th-century term for tuberculosis. They weren’t too fond of the other singers, either. But after some revisions, the opera eventually became one of Verdi’s most popular and enduring.
Anthony Michaels-Moore, a veteran baritone, will sing the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father. Michaels-Moore attributes the opera’s success to several factors.
“I think partly it’s down to the fact that the melodies, the tunes in it are instantly memorable and recognizable,” he said. “Even if you’ve never been to the opera, you’re probably going to know the famous tunes from ‘Traviata.’ And I think there’s something very appealing about the character of Violetta.
“There’s a tenderness and a susceptibility and also a nobility to her character. She’s also a victim, a victim of society, and I think for opera audiences that can be quite appealing. I think audiences enjoy (seeing) suffering onstage.”
Joyce El-Khoury, the Lebanese-born soprano who will sing the role of Violetta, is very familiar with Verdi’s heroine. She has sung Violetta in 50 performances, beginning as a student at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
“I can tell you off the bat that every time I’ve sung it, no matter what the production or where, Amsterdam or Korea, I’ve always found something new and discovered a new way, for example, to deliver a phrase,” she said.
“My psychology as Violetta is constantly evolving, which then informs the way that I sing the music. This character has been growing with me, even when I’m not singing her. She’s somewhere in my subconscious. It’s amazing.”
Sandler says that El-Khoury has “a gold-star background,” but opera was not her first love. El-Khoury grew up in Canada singing ancient chants in the Lebanese Christian church and listening to pop music. Celine Dion was a karaoke favorite.
“But I had this horrible, horrible, indescribable stage fright,” El-Khoury recalled. “I loved to sing, but I could only do it in my parents’ basement when no one was home. One day I got caught when my parents came home and I didn’t know they were upstairs, and they heard me singing. So I was discovered by my parents.”
Her parents were so impressed that they paid for private singing lessons. El-Khoury went on to earn degrees from the University of Ottawa and the Academy of Vocal Arts. She also was accepted into the prestigious Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
“I do think I was born to sing Verdi, and that’s something that came to my attention because of Maestro James Levine,” El-Khoury said. “When I was in the Met program, he encouraged me to sing Verdi and only Verdi. His music is very well written for my voice because I have a big dynamic range.”
Ward Holmquist will conduct and the production is directed by seasoned opera veteran David Gately, who directed “The Barber of Seville” for the Lyric Opera in 2000. The sets were designed by three-time Tony Award-winner Desmond Heeley, who intended for the set to travel, Sandler said. It comes to Kansas City from the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“I think it’s a good first opera to go to,” Michaels-Moore said. “It’s not too long, the story’s very clear, the music is fantastic, the costumes will look great, and the sets are very easy on the eye.”
“It’s a slam dunk,” she said.
Brentano String Quartet
The Friends of Chamber Music will kick off its new season with the Brentano String Quartet, which the Times of London has called “magnificent.” On Friday, the quartet will perform two of the most important works in the chamber music repertoire: Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet and the Piano Quintet in F minor Op. 34 by Johannes Brahms. Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen will join the ensemble for the Brahms.
New Dance Partners
Emily Behrmann, the general manager of the Johnson County Community College Performing Arts Series, is bringing some of the artistic ferment of the urban core to the suburbs. Her series has commissioned works for three of Kansas City’s dance companies to be performed at Yardley Hall on Friday and Saturday.
Choreographers Robert Moses, Penny Saunders and Amy Seiwert have created innovative works for Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance, Owen/Cox Dance Group and the Kansas City Ballet.
As part of the New Dance Partners initiative, dancers will be performing at nontraditional venues throughout the week, including the Overland Park farmers market. Visit the Johnson County Community College Performing Arts Series website for details.
This happy hour will rock
Happy hours don’t get much happier. The Kansas City Symphony is continuing its popular and free happy hour concerts this season. You can have a drink at the bar in the lobby of the Kauffman Center to help you unwind before the concert, and then enjoy some intriguing, off-the-beaten-path music.
For example, on Wednesday the program is “Modern Rock, Music of Reich, Ligeti and Zappa.” It’s not often you get to hear the music of these quirky composers performed live, so you should avail yourself of the opportunity.
6 p.m. Wednesday at Helzberg Hall. Free. Cash bar before the performance. Tickets are no longer available on the website, but the Symphony will take walk-ups based on seat availability. KCSymphony.org and 816-471-0400.