New York City Opera ‘La Traviata’ eerily invokes Whitney Houston
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A striking African American woman with a big voice who dies too soon.
Little did New York City Opera know when they cast Laquita Mitchell in the lead role of “La Traviata” (‘The Fallen Woman’) the significance it would have on the company’s opening performance on Sunday afternoon at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Less than 24 hours after the death of pop-star Whitney Houston, the color-blind casting of Violetta Valery — a woman done in by a combination of good looks, notoriety and ill-advised love — gave the 159-year old opera a jolt of relevance.
As a YouTube clip from 1994 featuring Whitney Houston, Luciano Pavarotti, Sting and Elton John riffing on Verdi makes clear opera is an artform that thrives on the unexpected.
This sense of drama is exactly what makes opera so timeless. Seeing Mitchell, a young, New York-born singer, singing the big, swooping love songs was exactly why people have been fighting to keep “the people’s opera” (as City Opera was dubbed, famously, by former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia) in business. Alas, this twist of fate was the only excitement the performance had to offer. City Opera itself has fallen on hard times of late. Less than a month ago, disagreements between management and unions threatened to jeopardize not only the season, but the 69-year old organization. The opening performance was well attended — indeed the whole run of “Traviata” is sold out thanks to donors who made every ticket $25.
This led to a far more diverse audience than recent performances at City Opera’s old home in Lincoln Center. Some patrons were dressed in evening gowns and tailored suits, others in jeans or Adidas track suits. Even a few New York notables were on hand — most notable was celebrity chef Mario Batali, sporting his familiar shorts and Crocs.
The fact that interest in the performance was high suggests there is still good will for the company; but the performance itself makes clear the challenges of performing opera on a budget. Batali himself could be seen nodding off at times; and most of the applause — both during the show and at curtain call — was more polite than enthusiastic. (The exception being the singer playing Germont, Stephen Powell, who received a nice hand after this Act II aria and while taking a bow.)
One had the sense on Sunday that the audience was hoping for something special to happen at this re-birth of City Opera. Perhaps the only special thing that needed to happen was that the curtain went up. It did and the company pushes on. Next up is the American premiere of a new opera by pop singer Rufus Wainwright called “Prima Donna.”
Who knows, after the success of the Anna Nicole Smith opera maybe a Whitney Houston opera will be next (NPR’s obituary features the headline: Whitney Houston: Her Life Played Out Like an Opera. City Opera, if it can survive, would be a great place for it.
-- James C. Taylor