After Giuseppe Verdi debuted his opera “La Traviata” in Venice in 1853, he called the performance a fiasco, in no small part due to the audience’s more than skeptical reaction to the casting of Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, then 38, in the role of Violetta, a young courtesan plagued by consumption. Yet due to the vocal maturity and emotional depth required to play the part, it is today still nearly always sung by women Salvini-Donatelli’s age or older.
On July 19, soprano Corinne Winters, just 30, will bring an infusion of youth to the role when the Wolf Trap Opera Company performs “La Traviata” at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center in Vienna. Miss Winters, a native of Frederick, Md., is making her American debut in the role after performing it in opera houses abroad.
Miss Winters is participating in her second season as a member of the Filene Young Artists, an annual summer residency program that helps train and provide exposure for emerging young opera artists.
“We give performance opportunities like this one, and we support them as they prepare these opportunities in a more integrated way than you’d find in a standalone company,” said Kim Witman, director of the Wolf Trap Opera Company. “If you just went to do a gig someplace else, it’s sink or swim and people might not take much interest in their development, but we have an eye toward helping them grow.”
Yet for all its focus on artist development, the Wolf Trap Opera Company puts the quality of its productions first. Its performers are selected through a yearly nationwide talent search in which the company’s leadership travels to hear approximately 1,000 candidates before ultimately selecting the final 15 to 20 who will fill the season’s main roles. The company also works with the highest caliber of collaborators and will perform “La Traviata” along with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Miss Winters began preparing for her role as Violetta long before auditioning for the Wolf Trap Opera Company. She started learning the role in her first year at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts in 2007, but at 24 she did not yet feel ready for Violetta. She finally performed the role publicly for the first time at 28, and has since been in productions with Opera Hong Kong and the English National Opera.
“It’s definitely my favorite role to date,” Miss Winters said. “The music is not only just incredibly personal, but so much of the drama is portrayed in the music. To perform Verdi, you need to be incredibly regimented, as you would with Mozart. Verdi is challenging because it has all the drama of Puccini, but also the form and style of something like Mozart.”
The difficulty of Verdi is the main reason why “La Traviata” has been absent for so long from the Wolf Trap stage. Although touring companies have brought the opera to Wolf Trap on occasion, the company has not mounted a performance since 1976.
“‘Traviata’ doesn’t come up often, since the roles are virtuosic and iconic,” Ms. Witman said. “Often it’s difficult to find the right singers in the professional 20 to 30 demographic who are right for those difficult roles. You can find some of the right people, but not all of them. This year we did. When we went out to do the auditions this year, it became clear, and all the pieces fell into place.”
Finding operas suitable for her young company is one of the more challenging aspects of Ms. Witman’s job, as key roles in operas have typically been filled by older performers.
“Composers wrote these hellaciously difficult roles that are meant for young men in their teens or 20s, but most of those singers don’t have the tool kit to deal with these roles until they’re a bit older,” Ms. Witman explained. “It’s always part of the landscape of opera, but for those coming to the opera new, the culture of understanding that you are going to cast very young roles with older singers is a bit of a stretch for them. In this case, they don’t have to make that stretch, so it will be an easier introductory experience for them.”
In addition to added realism, there is another benefit that comes with younger casting: The performers feel greater identification with the characters they are portraying.
“In our piece, she’s still a kept woman and a courtesan, but she’s also a performer,” Miss Winters said. “That really rings true in my life, because I have my stage persona, which is still a part of me and is very real, but I still have my personal life, Corinne-the-artist and Corinne-the-person. She has this life as a performer, the party world with the glitz and glamour, but doesn’t want to admit to other people that she has a personal life. I think that artists are duplicitous in this way and have both of those sides that are both a part of her, and I relate to that as well.”
Although Miss Winters and the company will perform “La Traviata” for only one night, both have exciting times ahead. The company will soon perform another Verdi opera, “Falstaff,” while Miss Winters will make her Washington National Opera debut in the fall of 2014 in an as-yet-unannounced role.
“I used to be really future-focused, and I think you have to be as you’re getting things started, you have to have goals,” Miss Winters said. “Now that the ball is rolling and things are happening I’m trying to take it day by day and really enjoy. If you are dedicated to whatever art you’re making at the moment, things will happen. They will only be successes if I’m really invested in what I’m doing now.”