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Staying True to Tradition With a Classic ‘La Traviata’ : Music: Director Wolfgang Weber calls the trend toward updating opera an abuse of the music. His version of the Verdi masterpiece will make no attempt to improve upon the original.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wolfgang Weber complained about the overly conservative taste of the Viennese opera-going public.

“They’re not interested in anything after Strauss’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ ” he grumbled.

But the veteran Austrian stage director is no flaming radical himself.

In town to direct the San Diego Opera production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which opens Saturday at 7 p.m. in Civic Theatre, Weber delivered his condemnation of directors who update traditional operas. The trend that has set Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in New York City’s Trump Tower and turned Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser into an American televangelist does not sit well with Weber.

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“It is nothing less than abusing the music which Verdi or Mozart wrote. I feel it’s an insult,” said Weber, who did not raise his voice to express his displeasure, but spoke in the measured tones of a man who knows his own mind and craft. But if the egos of certain directors are at fault, Weber blamed the press for creating all the fuss about updating.

“This is a most unhealthy thing in my eyes, because most of the directors--especially the young people--overestimate their importance. And they are mainly overestimated by the press. (These young directors) are unknown, and they think the only way they have to make a name is by the newspapers.”

Weber is directing a traditionally staged “La Traviata” for the San Diego Opera. He was clearly not intrigued by an unnamed colleague who, he said, is planning to update Verdi’s 1853 tragedy based on the Dumas play “La Dame aux Camelias” to the present time. In this chic “La Traviata,” the title character, Violetta, dies of AIDS complications instead of consumption.

“Now what, may I ask you, is the difference whether she dies of AIDS or of lung cancer?” Weber said. “If you want to make her die of AIDS and living in our own times, then you should rewrite the libretto and get a contemporary composer to write the music.”

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Weber agreed with the thesis that much of the desire to update old operas is a substitute for genuine interest in new opera, “because we do have an urgent need for new operas,” he said.

“At the beginning of the century, for example, everybody was waiting for the next Puccini opera. Who is waiting in our days for the next opera of (Hans Werner) Henze, or (Carlisle) Floyd or whatever? Nobody.”

Over his 30-year career, Weber has devoted a portion of his efforts to directing and promoting new operas. At the Vienna State Opera, for example, he recently staged Franz Wolpert’s “Der Eingebildete Kranke,” an operatic adaptation of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.”

“In the 1970s, I did a lot of contemporary music staging, especially the works of (German composer) Hans Werner Henze. Among those composers whose operas now seem most significant, I would say absolutely (Italy’s) Luigi Nono and Henze. I remember doing Nono’s ‘Intolleranza,’ which had a significant impact.”

Weber evidenced a high respect for the opera audience and its ability to interpret traditional opera into contemporary terms without the director doing their work for them.

“Cannot the audience see that Violetta is dying because nobody takes care of her? As a courtesan, she was queen of society in her time, but at the moment she got sick, society turned away. And then the opera audience goes out of the theater and sees people dying in the streets at their feet. Why do you have to update? It’s all there.”

Weber’s long directing career, beginning as an assistant to the late Herbert von Karajan, has centered around Salzburg’s summer music festival and the Vienna State Opera, where Weber is director of production and resident stage director of that company’s International Opera Studio, a training school for young singers.

“I’m now at the point where I want to cut down. This is my 186th production in over 30 years. I started early and was lucky to have the opportunity to work with von Karajan. He taught me all I know about my craft; he was the man who filled in my background.”

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Weber originally studied to be a conductor, but was detoured from his musical path by the lure of the theater.

“I was making extra money as a super (an extra) at the Heidelberg theater. Then I was struck by the desire to create human beings on stage, and I did the most stupid thing in my life. I gave up music. You smell the air of the stage, and suddenly it happens that you make the decision. I’m not unhappy with my profession and am lucky to have spent all of my life with music. In an opera production, there’s never a discussion between the conductor and me about what the music means.”

When questioning Weber about von Karajan, it was clear that no amount of respect toward the frequently controversial von Karajan could be considered excessive.

“Working with him was the most beautiful time of my life. I only have great admiration for him, because what he demanded from himself he demanded from his co-workers.”


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