Opera Philadelphia

A Heroine Named Rose

The opera La traviata is based upon a historical woman, Rose Alphonsine Plessis, born on January 15, 1824. Her mother was of a long established family of Normandy farmers. Her father was a traveling salesman. Rose’s early life was hectic and unstable. Her parents fought until their marriage came apart. Rose’s father abused her and eventually sold her to strangers as a servant. At the age of twelve, she escaped to Paris, hoping to find a life for herself.

Rose was one of many young girls who came to Paris from the French countryside seeking freedom from family problems. These girls were the original female bohemians, called grisettes [gree-ZET]. The name is derived [dr-AIVD] from the cheap grey cloth which they wore as dresses. They worked long hours, lived in very poor conditions, and suffered greatly. They worked all day and night just to earn enough to eat less than one meal a day. Their poverty and poor health led many of them to die of consumption [kuhn-SUHMP-shn].

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Yet, while they may have suffered, they were free. This was a time when women were property, legally tied to their fathers until marriage. Once married, they were the property of their husbands. Theirs was a world in which women had few legal rights. Grisettes were social outcasts and unacceptable as brides.

Rose yearned [YURN] for freedom and was determined to use her beauty, grace, dignity, charm, and wit to her advantage. She escaped poverty without giving up her freedom. If she had gotten married, a husband might abuse her and she would be powerless under the laws of the time to stop him. Rose left the world of the grisettes. She worked hard to lose her Norman accent, taught herself to read, and stayed abreast of current news, fashion, gossip and became one of Paris’ most successful courtesans, a free-living woman of society that had men who paid for her company. She changed her name to Marie Duplessis. She loved camellias, an odorless and expensive flower which contains evergreen leaves and a variety of multi-colored petals. Marie was reputedly [ruh·PYOO·tuhd·lee] the most elegant woman in Paris, fond of music, gambling, shopping, and horse racing. This was the woman with whom Alexandre Dumas fils fell in love following their first meeting in September 1844 at a Parisian theater. But Marie had other lovers and the young Dumas was unable to continually satisfy her expensive lifestyle. 

After a short fling, Marie left Dumas and attached herself to other protectors, including the composer Franz Liszt and an eighty year old Russian count. But the illness she caught in the grisette slum grew stronger. It was then that Count Edward of Perregaux, whom Marie rejected years earlier, noticed her failing health and again offered her his hand and protection. They were married in England. She accepted his proposal knowing that her remaining years would be few and that the Count would not follow her back to France (where their marriage was not considered valid). She returned to Paris, calling herself the Comtesse de Perregaux. She died on February 2, 1847, at her home on Rue de la Madeleine, a street named after the saint of fallen women.

After hearing of her death, the deeply saddened young Dumas wanted to write a play about their relationship, but learned that the censors objected to the idea. Instead he wrote a novel, changing Marie’s name to “Marguerite Gautier.” It is said he wrote the book in seven days. Eventually, he was able to write his desired play, which premiered in February, 1852. Thanks in part to Verdi’s opera, La traviata, it is still playing.

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Dedicated funding for the Sounds of Learning Dress Rehearsal Program has been provided by The William Penn Foundation, Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Eugene Garfield Foundation, Wells Fargo, Universal Health Services, Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, The McLean Contributionship, and Mr. William A. Loeb

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