BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Rada Tochalna plays the character of Violetta in La Traviata. The Melbourne soprano dubs Violetta a “high-class call girl” who sells sex and the fantasy of prestige. But beyond the surface of this Fallen Woman, as she was considered, is a human longing for love.
But what does it mean for a woman to fall, and would we look at Violetta the same way today as audiences had in 1853?
La Traviata is presented by BK Opera this month, and we get to the heart of the character in this chat with Rada.
How did you become involved in BK Opera’s La Traviata?
This opera company gives opera singers an environment to expand their repertoire and develop their skills in a safe space. Sometimes it feels like coming to hang out with friends rather than to rehearse, even though you do need to focus and work.
I am delighted to be invited to sing Violetta for the BK Opera. I was lucky to audition for them last year and to sing Micaela for their production of Carmen with glorious Bianca Bridget. It was an exceptionally fun experience.
When did you get the part of Violetta? How did you start to prepare to play this role?
I guess, I am not going to cite here The Complete Singer-Actor method book, but firstly I re-examine Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias or ‘The Lady of the Camillias’. Then it is endless hours of work, such as studying music, translating lyrics, and hours of practice on my own and with répétiteur.
Ideally, you should come to the first rehearsal at the theatre with perfectly prepared musical work – such as rhythm, dynamic, phrasing and lyrics – and memorized score. Then it is scrupulous work with the conductor. James Sybren Penn is very supportive and had done an excellent job in bringing this extraordinary music to each of his teams of singers. Then it is work with the director: we experiment, research, discover and develop character inside and outside of the rehearsal space. Furthermore, there are millions of different kinds of rehearsals, such as dress, tech, sitz and general rehearsals.
What can you tell us about Violetta’s character and role in the production?
The story about Violetta combines drama, profound emotion and wonderful melody.
Violetta is a top courtesan, kind of a celebrity, who sold sex but also glamour, conversation, and public prestige. She received her guests in a wildly ostentatious mansion, probably complete with a golden bathtub whose tap flowed with champagne.
I like that [artistic director] Kate Millett set this production in a modern time, as it was originally conceived as an opera in contemporary costumes but was not well received at the first performance in 1853.
Kate added a strong sexual flavour to all mass scenes, however she kept clear psychological tension between Violetta, Alfredo, and Giorgio Germont’s characters. We still see human drama of Violetta, who sacrifices herself for love. Violetta is my favourite character, as I suppose for every soprano. She is genuine, wholesome person. She gave up her financial stability to be with her love and later on she leaves Alfredo so he does not loose his family connection.
What do you think about the idea of ‘the fallen woman’? Times have changed since La Traviata‘s premiere. What does this character and her experiences mean to you?
Even though time has changed, the topics about the world of erotic delight, imported champagne, and silk sheets are still attractive to contemporary writers. There are few stories around – for example, Fifty Shades of Grey.
Violetta is a high-class call girl, who fulfills the deepest fantasies. Always in control, she has never experienced true love outside of her work. But all that is about to change. Once she meets Alfredo, she is hooked and they both have a chance to be happy together and experience this new sensation of love.
Do you feel there are themes of feminism that run through La Traviata? Or is it too much of a tragedy?
I like to think about the opera as stories of human drama. Characters go through life-shaking discoveries; they make choices that will profoundly affect their lives and others. Music helps us to engage in their drama and share these beautiful emotions.
I think it is a story about a successful courtesan, unexpectedly wooed by Alfredo (a young man from outside her normal world who has fallen in love with her). It ends with a reconciliation between these two lovers – a reunion that comes too late to save her. In between are mistakes and misunderstandings, acts of great foolishness and great nobility.
What do you hope audiences take away from your experience portraying Violetta?
Well, in their welcome word to Covent Garden’s production of La Traviata, Sir Antonio Pappano and Casper Holten mentioned that a good presentation of La Traviata “is an emotional fitness work-out for an intensive training of your senses such as love and grief…I would have added self-sacrifice, jealousy, despair, anticipation, disappointment, physical pain, moral trials to this list of muscles”.
Any parting words?
Thank you for this chat. It is wonderful that we have such a magazine, which promotes classical music and gives an essential reading for people inside and outside of the arts industry.
I wish that we would have a full house every night of the La Traviata, and satisfied and happy public. Also that we could have more such courageous amateur companies like BK Opera, which would be able to put up operas in Australia – and maybe one day, I can say that I have sung for BK Opera House Category A in Melbourne in 2017!
See Rada sing in BK Opera’s La Traviata on August 26 in Melbourne.