'Becoming Traviata' goes behind the opera scenes with Natalie Dessay

'Becoming Traviata' goes behind the opera scenes with Natalie Dessay
Natalie Dessay with director Jean-Francois Sivadier in a scene from the documentary "Becoming Traviata." (Distrib Films)

When soprano Natalie Dessay showed up for rehearsals for the 2011 production of "La Traviata" at the annual Aix-en-Provence Festival in France, she encountered a rather unwelcome presence -- a documentary crew with a camera that followed her around in disarming proximity.

"I didn't want them to be there. I was very annoyed that someone was filming us," Dessay recalled in a recent interview. The French singer was speaking by phone from San Francisco, where she was preparing to perform in Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffman."


"It's a very intimate moment, when you meet your colleagues. You don't know them well. It's quite difficult and we don't like to be observed. It disturbed me a lot."

Dessay said she requested that the film crew maintain a certain distance for the remainder of the rehearsal period. "After that, they were much more discreet," she said.

The resulting documentary, "Becoming Traviata," lifts the curtain on the rehearsal for a major operatic production, a lengthy process that is usually off-limits to the public. The documentary, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, follows Dessay and director Jean-Francois Sivadier as they work out the staging of Verdi's 1853 opera about a Parisian courtesan and her romantic entanglements.

The cast includes tenor Charles Castronovo -- who hails from Southern California and has been a Los Angeles Opera regular -- in the role of Alfredo, one of Violetta's suitors.

In a strange choice, the movie never shows the finished production that was presented to audiences at Aix-en-Provence. The focus on the rehearsal process -- to the exclusion of everything else -- was made by documentary filmmaker Philippe Béziat.

"It was a deliberate choice to just show behind the scenes," Béziat said on the phone from Paris. Speaking in French, he explained that his team shot more than 100 hours of footage that was eventually edited down to a two-hour running time.

Béziat said he wanted to create an artistically conceptual documentary. "There's a Brechtian distance that we wanted to achieve, so that the viewer can enter into the opera in a different way," he said.

Despite her initial qualms, Dessay said she's pleased with the way the movie turned out.

"I'm happy about the result because it explains what we're doing but it stays mysterious. There's no recipe for what we do," she said.

When asked about the phenomena of operas being broadcast to cinemas, like the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series, the soprano said she has mixed feelings.

"On one side, people who can't afford to go to New York can have access to that. On the other hand, maybe they won't make the effort to go if they have that," she said.

"I think that opera is a dying form," Dessay continued. "We do the works of the past over and over.... Opera is an old lady who is dying little by little. But we love this old lady."


For opera fans interested in seeing the full "La Traviata" production from Aix-en-Provence, Arte has posted a video of the performance that can be viewed free for the next three weeks.