Opera Philadelphia

LA TRAVIATA in the Time of COVID-19

by Dr. Lily Kass

La traviata is often presented as an opera about the pleasures and pains of love, or about the societal pressures placed on men and women of different social classes. What is talked about less is that La traviata is also an opera about disease and death. We are currently in the midst of a global pandemic, and COVID-19 is still a major factor in many of our lives here in the United States, as we control our behaviors to prevent catching or transmitting this respiratory illness. In 19th century Paris, COVID-19 was unknown, but another respiratory illness—tuberculosis—was very well-known. This essay will address how we, watching La traviata in 2021, might feel an extra sense of connection to this 168-year-old opera.

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Tuberculosis and COVID-19: Similarities and Differences

Today, many of us may be afraid of catching COVID-19, but during the time in which La Traviata was written, tuberculosis was romanticized rather than feared. It might seem strange to us that no characters in the opera seem afraid of catching Violetta’s illness, and Violetta herself does not seem concerned about transmitting it to anyone. Watching La traviata this year, we may flinch when Violetta coughs and doesn’t cover her mouth, or when we see how many people are gathering in indoor spaces with Violetta without wearing masks or practicing social distancing. Tuberculosis, like COVID-19, is indeed a contagious disease. However, when Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave wrote La Traviata in 1853, it was not yet known that tuberculosis was contagious, and the basic idea that germs cause disease wasn’t even widely accepted.

What was known about tuberculosis at the time was its symptoms, and although many of them were negative (coughing up blood, trouble breathing, physical weakness, and eventually death), some of them could be interpreted in a positive light. People who had tuberculosis often looked a certain way: they were very pale but with bright red cheeks, and they were often very thin. These features, especially in women, were thought at the time to be attractive. In addition, people with tuberculosis often alternated between feeling very tired and feeling very animated with a feverish energy. In women and men this caused bursts of creativity and the desire to live life to the fullest. The libretto to La traviata mentions all these symptoms. Violetta comments several times throughout the opera on how pale she is, and others often compare her to a flower – something that blooms brightly and then dies. Violetta also demonstrates evidence of her tuberculosis even when she does not seem sick in a conventional sense, with her almost manic energy in the party scene in Act I. Her extreme desire to dance the night away may be a symptom of her fever.

Because at the time the opera was written, no one knew what caused tuberculosis, people’s lifestyles were often blamed for the disease. People who were not able to feed and clothe themselves sufficiently or women who, like Violetta, relied on living with various wealthy male companions in order to survive, were thought to have brought tuberculosis on themselves. Violetta’s disease and death are therefore a kind of moral judgment in the opera. Violetta has not lived “correctly” within the bounds of society’s conventions, the opera tells us, and that is why she suffers and dies.

We don’t live in the world of the opera, but we do live in a world where people are not treated as equals and the rules of society still don’t feel fair. How rich someone is, what education they are able to obtain, where they live, what job they hold, or whom they know can affect a person’s health. We can see this today in how advantaged people are better able to avoid situations in which it may be difficult to mask or socially distance, or to obtain access to the vaccines that protect against COVID-19. 

Watching and Listening for Illness in La traviata

In this particular production of La traviata, presented by Opera Philadelphia in 2015, we see right away that Violetta is struggling with some sort of health problem. Even during the overture, which traditionally is played by the orchestra before the curtain is raised and performers appear on stage, Violetta is seated, framed by her doctor and her maid. The doctor takes her blood and listens to her heart and lungs, while the maid freshens her up for her party. Act III of La traviata centers around Violetta’s decline in health and her eventual death, and there are many visual cues to her illness on stage. Violetta is bedridden and struggles several times to try to get up. She asks for water. Her doctor tells her maid that her prognosis is not good. Finally, she has a burst of energy before she dies, a dramatic moment that is meant to mimic the actual medical phenomenon of spes phthisica, in which a patient with tuberculosis temporarily appears to revive before dying. 

In addition to seeing Violetta’s illness, we hear it as well. Singing often imitates non-verbal sounds such as laughing, sobbing, and screaming. In La traviata, there is some bubbling up of laughter, but there is also often a halting breathlessness in Violetta’s vocal line that is meant to show her illness. We hear it for the first time right after the Brindisi, or toast scene, when she seems to get some sort of an attack but tells her guests it is nothing and they should go on without her. She breathes in the middle of sentences and even words (you can see the “rest” or musical silence, in the middle of the word “tremito” (shiver) below).

Singing involves breath, and the singer playing Violetta is often called on by Verdi’s music to sing many notes without taking a breath, to hold out notes for long periods of times, and to quickly move from low to high notes. Someone with trouble breathing, for example, someone with tuberculosis, would not be able to do such things. Therefore, despite the moments of realism where Violetta seems to be gasping for breath, at other times we as audience members are asked to suspend our disbelief. We need to separate out the singer singing the role of Violetta (Lisette Oropesa in this case), who is able to breathe with ease, and Violetta herself who is dying of a condition that causes her to cough and gasp for breath. In other words, sometimes we hear evidence of Violetta’s body, like in the passage above, but most of the time, the singing coming from Lisette Oropesa is a representation of Violetta’s heart or soul, and the character’s frail physical form does not affect the sound.

The lives we are living affect how we interpret art. La traviata may remind us of the difficulties we may be facing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the inequalities that we may experience while seeking good and happy lives for ourselves. However, it may also remind us of how fun it will be to love and celebrate and sing with one another when the world feels safer again. It can remind us that even when bodies are weak, hearts and souls can stay strong.

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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