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Opera Illinois is staging two operas this year: La Traviata in February and Tosca in May. The pairing of the two, according to Opera Illinois Executive Director Margaret Swain, highlights the truly remarkable women in the title roles. "Finding themselves in difficult situations, they take decisive action, each in their own way: Violetta sacrifices her own happiness for the ultimate best interest of her lover, while Tosca takes matters into her own hands to try and save her lover from political oppression, torture, and death. Verdi is the greatest of all Italian opera composers, and La Traviata is one of his most touching and beautiful works. And everybody loves Puccini."

Swain said Artistic Director Fiora Contina chose La Traviata and Tosca because they're two very popular, deservedly well-loved operas that, compared to other grand operas, are somewhat less expensive to produce.

First up is La Traviata, which Swain explained is based on Marie Duplessis, a famed courtesan in mid-19th century Paris. "She had an affair with Alexander Dumas, the younger, and died shortly thereafter at age 23. Dumas was so saddened when he heard of her death, he quickly wrote the novel, La Dame aux Camèlias (The Lady of the Camellias)-camellias were her favorite flower, and she wore them often. The novel was adapted to a play, which Verdi saw, inspiring him to write the opera. The play also was made into a movie, Camille, with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Colin Firth and Greta Scacchi did a TV movie version several years ago too."

The opera is performed on Valentine's Day weekend, which Swain said is the perfect setting for the romantic La Traviata. "Violetta and Alfredo fall deeply in love, so much so that they're practically oblivious to the cares of the world: money matters, society, and family. But life interferes. The bills have to be paid. Prevailing morality forces them to separate. It's painful for both of them. But they're reunited at the end of her life and enjoy a beautiful moment together just before she dies."

While it's larger than life, she said there's a commonality to it as well. "We all have been wounded in love. Witnessing the hurt and reconciliation that Alfredo and Violetta go through can be a cathartic experience for the audience. And though it ends sadly, as Shakespeare said, 'It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.'"

Hollywood agrees. "The Richard Gere character took the Julia Roberts character to see La Traviata in the movie Pretty Woman. When trying to win her back, he plays the music Violetta sings when she leaves Alfredo-"Amami, Alfredo"-loudly, from his limousine. There are parallels between the story of Pretty Woman and Traviata. The movie Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman is very nearly La Traviata, directed of course by Baz Lurhman, who put La Boheme on Broadway," Swain said.

But it's Verdi's music that makes the opera astonishing, she said. "It captures and expresses the mood of Violetta's wild party life and the deeper feelings she and all the characters experience throughout the drama so exquisitely and accurately. The well-known and beautiful music adds tremendously to an already rich story. Lately I've heard dozens of cell phones ringing to the tune of the Act I Drinking Song."

Some people object to opera because although the stories are beautiful, death nearly always comes in the end. Swain said there's another way to view it, however. "People enjoy opera because of the magnificent music that illuminates and expresses the feelings and the drama. Most of us respond to the emotional expressivity of the human voice like no other instrument. And it's also like the attraction of a good tearjerker. It's about life: the heartache, the joy, and the struggles we all encounter. Our hearts are lifted and broken along with the characters on the stage. Death is a part of life, and I believe there's a healing power in the 'voyeuristic' grieving we participate in at the opera."

For those who haven't become opera aficionados yet, Swain said La Traviata is a good "first" opera. "If you've never been to the opera before and you'd like to give it a try, I recommend La Traviata highly. If you've seen Traviata before, you know it's a winner. We hope everyone will come see this version with two exciting new singers as the young lovers: soprano Anna Skibinski and tenor Derek Taylor. Michael Corvino will return to Opera Illinois to sing the role of Germont père. Fiora Contino will conduct, and Richard Barrett will be stage director."

The second opera of the season, Tosca, is worth getting excited about this early, she said. "The music in Tosca is stunning. It has the romantic sweep we love so well in Madame Butterfly and La Bohème, but with a powerful, driving force. It's thrilling. To call opera larger than life is clichéd, but, in this case, that's the only way to describe it. The three main characters are extraordinary individuals: ferociously passionate and committed to their ideals. When they clash, it's huge."

To get audience members ready for their operatic experiences, Opera Illinois has begun posting a suggested reading list on its Web site. "I think any experience is enhanced by knowing more about it, and opera is no exception. Reading increases your knowledge and appreciation of any subject. Opera is such a lavish form of entertainment-so much to see, hear, and absorb. Any preparation beforehand may help. Because the opera will be sung in its original language, it's good to read the story before seeing the opera, although with supertitles that isn't entirely necessary. The synopsis will be in the program and on our Web site. I find it interesting to read the novels or plays operas are based on to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the opera and the original historical or literary source, but it's certainly not required to enjoy the opera. It may help to better understand the story line, the characters, and the time and place the opera is set."

Swain did such reading recently. "I just finished The Book of the Courtesans: a Catalogue of their Virtues by Susan Griffin. It was fascinating. It added so much to my understanding of the kind of woman that could become rich and famous as a 'traviata' or 'fallen woman,' and the society that not only allowed the courtesans to exist, but actually encouraged their way of life. I found this well-written book very stimulating and thought provoking-especially about women's place in our world, then and now. As we evolve as a society, women have so many more options. Yet although there are professional escorts and high-class 'call girls' working today, they aren't quite like the grande horizontales: highly public figures with tremendous influence over everything from fashion to politics. If you can find a copy of The Lady of the Camellias by Alexander Dumas the younger-he was the illegitimate son of the author of The Three Musketeers-read it. But be sure you have tissues at hand. The only time I put the book down was when I was crying so hard I couldn't see. It's so romantic and sad."

Before the audience can experience the finished product, staging has to take place.

"Opera is hard because so many various elements must come together at once in just the right way," Swain said. "The conductor, of course, cares most about the 'sound': the music, the orchestra, and singers. The stage director is most concerned with the 'look': the sets, costumes, and acting. You want everyone involved-and there are about 100 for each production-to feel their own contribution is the most important part in the show. Then, all of the differing disciplines must be balanced for the best effect of all."

She said as in any endeavor, quality is expensive-and with opera, that's very much the case. "Finding the best singers and production elements possible on our budget is a huge challenge. The biggest payoff is the human reaction. After the performance, when audience members relate their experience-saying they loved it, they got goose bumps, they cried, whatever-that's extremely rewarding. When watching a rehearsal and in spite of all the worries and problems to solve, the beauty of the music, the dedication, and talent of the artists never cease to overwhelm me. Working with our talented local performers, as well as the visiting artists, is a great source of joy. We have an awful lot of fun while working hard."

Another enjoyable undertaking is Opera Illinois' Young Artists program, which is an ongoing project to teach youngsters about opera and showcase their vocal abilities. "We have some extraordinary young singers in the area who perform for a variety of events in the community, singing hit opera tunes. People love to hear their favorite arias in less conventional settings, and it's very important for our young artists to get performing opportunities. And every now and then, someone who thought they didn't like opera is won over."

Typically, Opera Illinois produces three operas each season, but because of finances, there's only two this year, Swain said. "Producing grand opera in a big, important venue such as the Civic Center Theater is a very expensive undertaking. Ticket sales don't even cover half of the production costs. Scaling back a little this season and next will get us in a better position to survive and thrive in the future."

Future seasons may look a little different as well. "Financial considerations require another 'budget' season next year," she said. "And it isn't yet certain, but we may not be performing in the Civic Center. We're hoping to partner with ICC and do a smaller-scale work in another smaller venue. We believe the intimacy of the smaller space will make up for the lack of grandeur in the big theater. The intention is to get Opera Illinois on a positive financial footing and go forward in a sustainable and viable way. We may pare down on the scale and scope, but there will be no reduction in the artistic quality of the performances."

La Traviata takes place at 7:30 p.m., February 11, and at 2 p.m., February 13, at the Peoria Civic Center. For more information, call 673-7253. AA!