Photo by Karli Cadel

Traviata - Then and Now

“People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it are very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.” Thus, in the film Pretty Woman, the billionaire Edward Lewis tells his streetwalker-turned-escort Vivian as they settle into their box seats at the San Francisco Opera. Soon we see her moved to tears. The opera they attend is La Traviata, and in a plot point missed by most of the film’s audience, the opera has such a strong effect on her becauseshe sees on the stage a parallel to her own life – the story of a courtesan whose checkered sexual history prevents her from fulfilling her dream of happiness with the man she loves.

Before we continue, an explanation of the institution of the courtesan is in order. Courtesans were not simply prostitutes or even high-class call girls. While they did provide sexual favors for those men who were wealthy enough to afford their services, they were well-educated women who were valued as much for their sophistication and intellectual gifts as they were for their beauty and physical companionship. And unlike the women who have figured so prominently in recent sex scandals in the United States, they enjoyed open relationships with their male companions. In an era where upper-class women were denied higher education, they served an important function. In fact, some even charged for conversation alone.

The institution goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, whose men sought the companionship of “hetaeras” for both sexual and intellectual stimulation. Courtesans flourished in sixteenth-century Italy, a time when even the pope had mistresses; Pope Alexander VI was known to have fathered six children with one woman. The film Dangerous Beauty, though it takes liberties with the biographical details of its heroine Veronica Franklin, accurately depicts the attitudes of the society of its time. The British Restoration period and nineteenth-century France were also eras in which the institution flourished.  It became superfluous not because of a change in morality but because upper-class and middle-class women themselves became educated, depriving it of its rationale.

Verdi called the story of this opera “a subject for our time.” In the words of opera scholar M. Owen Lee, he “was determined to use the medium of which he was now a master to arouse sympathy for society’s outcasts, the sort of people we might go out of our way to avoid on the streets.” Like Alexandre Dumas, upon whose novel and play the opera is based, he wanted to protest the exploitation of women, and he gave the opera a contemporary setting. However, to get the work past the censors, he reluctantly allowed it to be set in an earlier era, to remove the “sting” of the message – just as in later years he would be forced to move the action of A Masked Ball from Europe to New England.

Pretty Woman has a happy ending of sorts (if we overlook the ironic voice-over comments about Hollywood happy endings), as if to say it is possible to escape one’s past.   Verdi knew better, which is why this opera has never ceased to move us. And listen closely to the selection from La Traviata which accompanies the reuniting of the lovers at the end of the film. It’s not the love theme – it’s the tearful music to which Violetta bids Alfredo farewell.

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