Verismo Opera Theater “La Traviata”
7:30 p.m. Aug. 24 and Aug. 30, 4 p.m. Sept. 1
The Arts Center of Oak Park, 200 N. Oak Park Ave.
$30 general; $40 premium seating; $20 students and seniors
(800) 838-3005; verismooperatheater.com
Free lecture, “Operalogue,” at 6:45 p.m. Aug. 24
The human heart with its generosity and its needs is a constant in storytelling, and certain opera plots are especially pliable.
So Bradley Schuller, founder of Verismo Opera Theater in Oak Park, has moved the company’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s popular 1853 opera “La Traviata,” originally set in Paris at the beginning of the 18th century, to Oak Park in 1915 at the beginning of World War I.
“We’re a home-grown opera company, right here in Oak Park,” Schuller said, “and I think the setting will resonate with our audiences.”
The opera will be performed with a backdrop of photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings, interiors and gardens in Oak Park from a collection of 35,000 images owned by Wright scholar Thomas A. Heinz, who is himself an architect.
The link between Schuller and Heinz is bass-baritone William Powers, who is directing Verismo’s “La Traviata” and has been a client of Heinz’s for many years.
“This show is set roughly in the Prairie Period,” Powers explained, “and the gowns have that Gibson Girl look, though corsets were disappearing.” The fashions, for example, might resemble those worn by the women in the first season of “Downton Abbey.”
The color scheme of the opera will coordinate with Heinz’s photographs, which are mainly black and white. “There will be some color,” Powers said, “but the men will be in tuxes and the women’s clothing will be in various shades of gray.” The backdrop will be a cyclorama, displayed on Prairie-style screens.
Heinz’s life-long fascination with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright began in high school when he read “The Future of Architecture,” a 1953 collection of the master’s statements on architecture. He visited numerous Wright sites, including Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I was one of the people who joined Wright in petitioning President Truman to bury the power lines that were ruining the view from Taliesin West,” Heinz said, recalling the lost battle.
Heinz has written 35 books on Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, including the “Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide,” which includes all the architect’s buildings in the United States and around the world. “When Bill (Powers) brought me into this project I thought it was a great idea,” Heinz said. “I know images and he knows the opera. It has been a lot of fun.”
The professional cast of “La Traviata” includes soprano Christine Steyer as Violetta Valery, la traviata of the title; mezzo-soprano Katherine B. Dalin as Violetta’s friend Flora; soprano Nicole Cooper as the heroine’s confidant Annina; tenor Kevin R. Siembor as her lover Alfredo Germont, and baritone Russell Hoke as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father. Others in the cast are tenor David E. Wojtowicz, baritone John Boehlefeld, bass Stuart Thompson and bass DaRell Haynes. The opera will be performed in Italian with English supertitles.
“This is a timeless love story,” Powers said. “That is the beauty of ‘Traviata,’ and that’s why I feel very comfortable with the change of time and place.”
There is no doubt that Verdi’s magnificent music will survive the fresh surroundings, but will the story still hold? “This is not a Disney movie,” Schuller declared, “and it is certainly not PG rated.”
We don’t use the word courtesan any more, but Violetta Valery could be a high-priced call girl with a good address and clients from among the movers and shakers of the day. The impetuous Alfredo Germont, who drinks too much and has a cruel streak, can exist in any era. And his father, Giorgio Germont, might well be worried about Alfredo’s younger sister’s chance of making a good marriage as long as Alfredo is publicly linked with a woman like Violetta.
Also anyone familiar with the personal life of Frank Lloyd Wright, which has been explored by numerous authors, knows that there were plenty of things going on in Oak Park when he was there. So Verismo invites audiences to suspend disbelief during its one-of-a-kind production in which Oak Park plays a prominent role.