Karen Slack confident in singing Violetta in Sacramento Opera’s ‘La Traviata’

By Edward Ortiz
eortiz@sacbee.com
Published: Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1I
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 22, 2010 – 9:59 am

RANDALL BENTON rbenton@sacbee.com "I love this character," says Karen Slack, who sings the role of Violetta in the Sacramento Opera's "La Traviata." "I think of Violetta as a real woman. She's the most real character I've ever had to play."

As she walks across the bare stage of the Community Center Theater during a photo shoot, soprano Karen Slack exudes unwavering confidence and regal sensuality.

Those are two attributes Slack will bring to the Sacramento Opera production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata.” In the production, which opens Friday, Slack will sing the most famous courtesan role in the operatic repertoire – Violetta.

The role is a demanding one for a soprano. It calls for sensitive acting that conveys a woman living outside societal norms. And it demands a versatile singer, who can sing lyrically in one act, powerfully and darkly in another.

“I love this character,” said Slack. “I think of Violetta as a real woman. She’s the most real character I’ve ever had to play.”

And that realism comes from Violetta’s character being based on an actual 19th century courtesan, Marie Duplessis. Librettist Francesco Maria Piave and Verdi based “La Traviata” on Alexander Dumas Jr.’s play “The Lady of the Camellias.” Dumas, in turn, based the Marguerite Gautier courtesan character on Duplessis, who was also his lover.

Duplessis was an intimate companion to French and Swiss royalty, and was believed to be one of Franz Liszt’s lovers. Like the Violetta character in “La Traviata,” Duplessis died of consumption at an early age.

“The Violetta character is not so far from who we are as modern-day women,” said Slack, who in 2007 moved from San Francisco to Sacramento to be with her husband, who is also her childhood sweetheart.

Courtesans of Violetta’s time were assertive, freethinking women. Typically, they received more education than the wives of the men they were entertaining.

In “La Traviata,” Violetta falls in love with the young and ardent Alfredo. But social conventions of the day darken the marital bliss after Alfredo’s father implores Violetta to give up the marriage in order to save his family’s reputation. Violetta, who knows she’s dying of consumption, abides.

“I find her a strong and assertive character,” said Slack. “She asserts herself through not allowing people to take advantage of her. And because she loves Alfredo, she sacrifices herself.

“You have to step away from the role and not try to add too much … just do what’s on the page,” said Slack about her approach to the role.

Indeed, tact and emotional distance are valued in a courtesan, said Veronica Monet, a Nevada City resident and former high-priced escort.

“I would say to any singer not to portray Violetta too tragically,” said Monet, who is the author of “Sex Secrets of Escorts” (Alpha, $16.95, 288 pages) and a certified sexologist.

She believes that playing Violetta demands a certain maturity, given that most courtesans are older women. And being a courtesan means acknowledging that she is the intellectual equal of any man.

“What matters most is that these women were powerful personalities. People think of courtesans as a deprecated profession but it is really about being adored and respected.”

Slack studied the Violetta role when she was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but this will be the first time she performs it.

“I don’t know whether I would have been able to handle this role emotionally or technically five years ago,” said Slack, 34.

But Slack knows intimately what is required of a true Verdi soprano. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” in 2006.

“Certainly, I could have sung the Violetta role, but five years ago, I don’t think I could have brought all of the richness and the fullness to the piece I’m bringing to it now.”

If her past performances are any indication, Slack may prove more than just a solid choice for Violetta. Some local opera fans will know Slack through her affiliation with the San Francisco Opera. She participated in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and is a former Adler fellow. And last year Slack performed the role of Serena in the standout San Francisco Opera production of “Porgy and Bess.”

One of the biggest challenges for Slack will be living up to the different singing styles Verdi wrote for Violetta in each of three acts.

The first act calls for a fair amount of high singing as well as coloratura singing. In the second act the singing is more dramatic.

“It’s here where Violetta has to sacrifice herself. Dramatically, it’s where everything changes,” Slack said. “It’s also where she knows this is her one last shot at true love, because courtesans were not allowed to fall in love.”

The third act is more suited to the talents of a lyric soprano.

“In the third you need to have the breathiness in the voice, and you have to hit these beautiful high notes at the end … and this after singing for the last two hours.”

For Sacramento Opera artistic director Timm Rolek, “La Traviata” remains a fascinating work – not because of its treatment of the courtesan – but for how the dramatic focus of the opera has changed over time.

“Over the years, this opera has taken on a life of its own,” said Rolek. “It was based on a certifiable best-seller … so even within Verdi’s lifetime the production style of this piece changed a lot.”

When the opera premiered, and for many years after, “La Traviata” was seen as a story told solely through Alfredo’s eyes, Rolek said.

“Nowadays, people approach it as a failed love story, but back when it was new, it was played as one man’s obsession that leads to his downfall.”

“So it’s like it’s two different operas, with the same sheet music.”

For Slack, the opera is about a woman who has thrown off the shackles of society, despite the stigma that comes with that. And she feels a deep kinship with Violetta.

“She took the positive things, the things that work for her, and tried to maximize them,” said Slack. “I find her simple and real … and that’s as close as you can get to a fellow woman.”

See original at Sacramento Bee

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