Controversy. Sex scandals. Drinking songs. Anvils as percussion. Yes, it is a night at the opera.
All of these themes comprise La Traviata, one of the world’s most popular operas, which is showing at the Wharton Center on May 22. The Wharton Center is showing an entire repertoire to add magic to those warm summer nights.
The Michigan Opera Theater (MOT), based in Detroit, Mich., is bringing the show to campus. The MOT brings one show a year to MSU and MOT communications coordinator Rebekah Johnson said La Traviata is a good opera to start with if you’ve never experienced one before. “Opera is one of those things that envelops all different arts and culture together: theater, art, singing, music and dance. All of these different elements of art, music and culture are put together. It is a big conglomeration of art forms,” Johnson said.
Without knowing much about the opera, it can seem boring, uninteresting or just a bunch of overwhelming voices hurting your ears. But with a little background and familiarization, the opera can be quite engaging. “I am a recent former student and typically students are afraid to try it,” Johnson said. “Before you go, do research on [the] Internet. When you actually go with research you will be surprised that you really like it. [Students] can really get into it.”
Political science junior Rachel Penn is living proof the opera can be an enjoyable experience for all ages. Penn’s family took her to her first opera at the Wharton Center as a young child and she has been a “huge fan” ever since. “My grandpa started me on opera because he listened to it,” Penn said. “It wasn’t such a shock when I was older.” Penn saw La Traviata last year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and was moved by the scene when the main character, Violetta, was talking to the father of her lover, Alfredo. Alfredo’s father convinced Violetta the two should not be together.
Forbidden love is a pervasive theme in La Traviata. The story is set in mid-19th century France, starring Violetta, a courtesan (a prostitute who associates with men of wealth). Alfredo Germont, a member of the wealthy class, is quite taken with Violetta when he meets her at a ritzy party. He engages her in a song among the heavily-drinking guests and urges them to “drink to love and our drinking will render our kisses more ardent.”
Alfredo falls in love with Violetta to the chagrin of Alfredo’s father, who is displeased with his son associating himself with a “wayward woman.” To start a new life together, Alfredo and Violetta move to the countryside, but Alfredo’s father eventually convinces Violetta to renounce his son to save their family’s reputation. Drama ensues, emotions run high and the music punctuates the powerful themes with ebb and flow with every crescendo.
“If a student listens to the music, I think they will be moved and the experience of the theater is fun,” Penn said.
Interestingly, the dramatic plot of La Traviata was inspired by real life events. Historically, it all started with Marie Duplessis. Agenor, son of the Duc de Guiche, fell in love with Marie and was forced by his father to break off the relationship. To be associated with a “wayward woman” who was not married and not a virgin would ruin the reputation of those in “high society.” Alexandre Dumas, son of the author of the Count of Monte Cristo, also had an affair with Marie, but she died at the age of 23 from consumption. Quite affected by their love affair and her death, Dumas blended his story with Agenor’s to create a tragically romantic novel that later became a play. Giuseppe Verdi set the play to music and “La Traviata” was born.
A few instances in popular culture have taken cues from this opera. If the plot of a wealthy man falling in love with a prostitute sounds familiar, it is because the ‘80s box office hit “Pretty Woman” was loosely based off of the storyline. In the movie, there is a scene where Richard Gere and Julia Roberts are at the opera and Roberts is intently watching the show. They are very appropriately watching “La Traviata.” When asked if she liked the opera, Roberts memorably replied, “It was so good, I almost peed my pants!”
The song Alfredo sings to Violetta when they first meet is called “Brindisi (Libiamo Ne’ Lieti Calici)” or “The Drinking Song.” This well-known tune is one everyone has heard. If you’re skeptical, look it up. Chances are you’ve heard this upbeat song in any Italian restaurant you’ve ever been in. As another interesting note, Verdi relied heavily on the use of an anvil as the main percussion piece in his music, possibly making him the creator of punk-rock.
To students who have never experienced the opera before, Penn would tell them to give it a chance and not stereotype it as “a singing woman wearing Viking horns.” Above all, she said the music is the most important element to appreciate.
Even if opera will never be your cup of tea, a trip to the theater can be a unique experience and there are plenty of other theater productions in the area to put a little magic into a warm summer evening. Lansing’s BoarsHead Theater is showing Escanaba in Love, a sequel to the popular comedy Escanaba in the Moonlight. To make a night out of the experience, the BoarsHead Theater offers “Dinner and a Show” packages that include discounts at some local restaurants, such as Beggar’s Banquet and Clara’s, when tickets are booked through the BoarsHead box office.
The Riverwalk Theatre is a non-profit community theater in downtown Lansing, just three blocks from the capitol. They offer small, kitschy shows, such as the family comedy The Ransom of Red Chief and I Hate Hamlet, a spoof on the Shakespearean tale. MSU’s Summer Circle Theater offers free shows performed by MSU theater students on the banks of the Red Cedar at 8 p.m., rain or shine. The 2008 season includes Red Herring by Michael Hollinger, running June 11-14; The Girls in 509 by Howard Teichmann, running June 18-21; and Number the Stars, based on the book by Lois Lowry, running June 25-28. For night owls, the MSU Summer Circle offers a late-night show under the stars with more mature content. These edgier shows include Medea by Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, June 20, 21 and 27; as well as Baby Food and The Other Person by David Lindsey-Abaire, June 18, 19 and 28.
At first glance, an opera may not seem like a thrilling concept. But with a little research, you may find yourself surprised. Love it or hate it, a night at the opera could be an experience you never forget and leave you a little more culturally and artistically aware.

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