Well before Natalie Dessay established herself as one of the finest coloratura sopranos of her generation, she wanted to become a ballet dancer. Later, still in her teens, she switched to acting. At 20 years of age, she discovered opera – or more precisely, as she once said, “Opera chose me.”
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“Becoming Traviata” documents preparations for a stripped-down version of Verdi’s “La Traviata” which was performed at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché in Aix-en-Provence in the summer of 2011.
At the center of director Philippe Béziat’s documentary is Dessay and her collaboration with production director Jean-François Sivadier, thus the title, “Becoming Traviata.” Watching Dessay and Sivadier sculpt the role of Violetta is fascinating, must-see footage for anyone interested in the performing arts. Dessay doesn’t just sing; she embodies the role of Violetta with a startling realism that borders on the supernatural.
Unlike Franco Zeffirelli’s “La Traviata” (1982), hailed for its opulent production and voluptuous cinematography, Sivadier aggressively sheds the frills of historical costume drama, concentrating the flavor of the music and character like a chef over a simmering stock pot.
It’s hard to imagine anyone with the voice, compelling acting chops, and dancer’s sense of movement who would be a better fit for the role of Violetta in this production.
Indie Movies recently caught up with the charismatic Ms. Dessay at the San Francisco Opera House before rehearsal for her role as Antonia in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” Getting comfortable in her dressing room, the charismatic Dessay came alive with an effortless passion and intelligence that virtually burst through the confines of three-dimensional space.
See trailer for “Becoming Traviata” HERE.
It was fascinating watching Jean-François Sivadier direct you during the “La Traviata” rehearsals. At one point he suggested so much detail about Violetta’s state of mind and every gesture – it felt like he was directing a ballet rather than an opera.
Dessay: Sometimes it’s not as precise as that. But sometimes you also have two months to rehearse, but when you only have four weeks, you have to find yourself, to go forward and “Do this! Do this! Do this!” – and then for us, to find out why we do these actions.
It’s very important that someone talks to me; it’s very, very important, because it gives me the way, the path. Then I do my own cooking – you know? – in my kitchen, my internal kitchen.
But it’s very important that I can enter into his universe, because that’s the point – I’m not here to do what I think Violetta would do! I’m here to do what he (Sivadier) thinks I should do – otherwise I would direct myself. If I trust him, it’s because I want to enter into his head; that’s my journey.
It’s not about what he says; it’s how he says it. If you just write what he says, you won’t understand it – it doesn’t mean anything. But, the way he says it, and the way he looks at you; and the way he acts with his body and his mind and with his instinct – to you – that’s the direction!
Can you talk about classical vs. method acting in opera? It seems like you would have to concentrate so much on controlling the voice, hitting your spots – and it’s live – no second takes. Is method acting even feasible in opera?
Dessay: Of course we do method acting in opera! We do have a lot to think about, and the more we have, the richer is the interpretation in the end.
Can you talk more about the state of acting on the operatic stage?
Dessay: The acting is non-existent most of the time. Most of the time it’s action after action, and it’s not really deep, because we don’t have that kind of training.
I was trained as an actress first. I wanted always to act – that’s my goal in opera. I don’t care about the music in opera. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true! Music is just a means – the goal is theater. But it’s not common to think like that.
And that’s why I want to quit opera and go into straight theater, because I’m too frustrated.
How did you feel about having a documentary crew with cameras and microphones at the “La Traviata” rehearsals?
Dessay: Actually, I didn’t want them to be there. I hate them! But, in the end, I’m very happy with the movie, because it shows exactly me. It shows to the audience the way we work, and how deep we work – to prepare a show – and nobody knows that.
How do you approach acting for the camera vs. the stage – besides the obvious external adjustments you make projecting in a concert hall as opposed to a close-up camera shot?
Dessay: It’s very different because, for example, we might have two or three ideas for an aria, but for a monologue, you have thousands of ideas. It goes faster and faster. For us (opera singers), one idea can last forever, because you have to color the same idea in different ways for ten minutes.
What did you think of Zeffirelli’s version of “La Traviata”?
Dessay: When I saw it when I was a teenager I thought it was fantastic, but now, of course, we wouldn’t do that anymore.
Teresa Stratas (Violetta) said that Zeffirelli was only interested in the color of her dress matching the curtains, so it’s not really the kind of theater we like. There was really no direction. They did whatever they could. Zeffirelli wasn’t really a director – he was a set designer.
His Traviata was big, always so big, and that’s why it was so loved. It was the sets and the costumes, but that’s not the point! I don’t like opera films. I think opera is not to be filmed.
Can we talk about the ending of “Becoming Traviata” or should we let the audience find out for themselves? It’s pretty funny.
Dessay: The fall? Actually, that’s the rehearsal. We say in French, “répétition.” That’s our job, to rehearse – to repeat, repeat, repeat – to try to find the moment. I was laughing, looking at that, because that is very funny, and at the same time, that’s truth!
Recently you said, “I think that opera is a dying form. We do the works of the past over and over…. Opera is an old lady who is dying little by little…”
Dessay: “…But we love this lady! And we want to keep her alive as long as possible.”
(A video of the 2011 “La Traviata” performance is now available on DVD.)
See playdates and locations for “Becoming Traviata” HERE.
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