In Spring Awakening, 19th-century German teens rock out to punk-tinged anthems with handheld mics. In Head Over Heels, the land of Arcadia runs on the beat of the Go-Go's. In Rigoletto, neon Vegas signs illuminate a centuries-old tale of revenge. After all that, what was Michael Mayer going to do to La Traviata?
Not that much.
For the Metropolitan Opera's new production, opening December 4, the Tony Award-winning director is keeping Verdi's tragic love story in 19th-century Paris—as it was written. Mayer's staging succeeds Willy Decker's stark, conceptual take, replacing sleek slips and couches with period gowns and an opulent salon (or, a deathbed-ridden heroine's visualization of one).
As he keeps the story in a familiar setting, Mayer surrounds himself with familiar faces. Singing Violetta is Diana Damrau, who starred as Gilda in the 2013 premiere of Mayer's Rigoletto. Damrau herself is no stranger to the role, having first taken it on just a month after her Rigoletto bow. Conducting then was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who returns to the podium now (this time, as the Met's music director as well).
Ahead of the production's premiere, Mayer spoke with Playbill about what makes the conventional unconventional, honoring Verdi's melodies, and broken champagne flutes. Read excerpts from the conversation below.
To go into a Michael Mayer production expecting something traditional is a bit of a surprise. What led to the decision to keep things classic this time around?
It was the only opera that Verdi wrote that was a contemporary opera, and the censors wouldn't let it go on unless he changed the setting. We're setting it in Paris in the mid-19th century—when he wrote it. So in a weird way, It's less conventional, because it's not usually how it's done because it wasn't allowed to be done that way. It's so true to the original source material [Alexandre Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camélias], and it was very important to Verdi. I think he wrote it very much to be played that way, so I didn't see any real point in trying to relocate it. It's not anything radical like Las Vegas, and we're not doing La Traviata: Planet of the Apes or like that La Bohème on the moon. It's more naturalistic for sure.
Diana Damrau first sang Violetta in 2013 at the Met—the same year your first worked with her on Rigoletto. How will her Violetta differ when working with you five years later?
The first time she did the role was in the Willy Decker production. That was a very deconstructed version of the opera. And it really focused on a very desperate, enraged Violetta where the illness was on the back burner. Diana has been very embracing of a different interpretation. It's kind of a signature role for her now—she really knows the character in a profound way, and she's interested in the illness, the fragility, the vulnerability, and the moment-to-moment reality of Violetta's story. And that goes very nicely with what would we're creating for her to do that in.
Is it a challenge to find that balance between your vision as a director and the previous interpretations a performer carries with them?
It's what she wants to explore, and it's very much what we are delivering. So there wasn't much negotiation to do; it's where she wanted to be. You don't want to do the same thing twice. Context is everything. Perhaps if there had been an extremely traditional La Traviata and I was then doing a new production, I would probably think twice about doing something as romantic and nuanced as we're doing. But it's what we should be doing, because they did it a different way last time. And the same thing for her.
Are you saying this production is a response to what's was done before you?
I am responding to it. Look, there was an existing production of Rigoletto that was extremely conventional, and I was asked to replace that, so I wanted to and was encouraged to do something extremely bold. The Decker Traviata was extremely bold and different, so we're doing something that's perhaps more recognizable, and more along the lines of the kind of physical world that people associate with the opera. And I'm sure that the next production of La Traviata when they're done with ours will be something far out and different than what we're doing. There's no point in redoing it if you're going to do it the same way as whoever did it before you. The whole beauty of these classic works is that they are sturdy enough to withstand a lot of interpretation.
Do you ever sense a resistance to that, if people are so familiar with these works?
Everyone knows the music. They have their favorite performances lodged in their brains. I think there are people who come to the opera and the theatre ready for a fight, because it's not Tebaldi or whatever. Haters will hate, you know. But there's nothing we can do about that. I'd like to think there are people who come and are really interested to hear someone else sing it maybe different. And the maesto is certainly not going to conduct it the way he did it the last time her did it. So there are different nuances. I'd like to think people are excited and open and eager to hear this anew and to hear what these singers are bringing to it than what they've seen before.
How does collaborating with Yannick Nézet-Séguin compare to working with a music director on Broadway?
Doing a musical, the director really is in charge. Everyone looks to him or to her for the final stamp of saying this is how it's going to be done. In the opera world, it's really the maestro who has the final say on everything. But I really enjoy working with Yannick; he's got a very profound understanding of the music, and a belief—which I share—that Verdi really was the expert on it, and if you listen to what the master had to say and try to figure out why this is there and why that is there, then that's really the job. He's thinking of the music as storytelling. Irrespective of the actual libretto, the music information carries narrative and character, and that's of great interest to him, and that's obviously of great interest to me as well. We get along well, but from an artistic perspective, it's been a very satisfying collaboration. Even though he gets final say.
Including over breaking champagne flutes mid-aria as described in the recent New York Times piece?
That's right. That wasn't really my instruction. It was something Diana wanted to do, and we found a good place for it. And Yannick had been in Philadelphia for a few days, and he came back and we ran that scene, and he was very surprised to hear the glass breaking. It happened to be the day the Times was there. It was pretty much the only moment of drama that wasn't onstage. People are always looking for something.
Well it does speak to your shared commitment to Verdi's music. Between Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Aida on the way, what is it about his music that draws you in?
He's just such a great storyteller. He's so passionate about the characters, and he's got an incredible gift for melody and for contrapuntal information. I just love that the music has such richness, and he picked these really amazing stories to tell so beautifully that demand to be sung. They're just amazing operas.
La Traviata, starring Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, and Quinn Kelsey, continues through December 29. Performances will resume in April with a cast including Anita Hartig, Stephen Costello, and Plácido Domingo.