Three decades ago, when director Frank Corsaro staged his first production of Verdi's "La Traviata" at the New York City Opera, with Placido Domingo and Patricia Brooks in the lead roles, detractors branded him an enfant terrible for his "daring" conception of Violetta, the drama's consumptive heroine.
"My idea of Violetta was of a real woman who could be charming, frivolous, provocative, as well as the sainted Madonna that convention had made her," Corsaro says. "I was bringing what I knew from the theater to opera."
At the time, the notion that opera stars ought to be actors as well as singers seemed a radical departure. It's a measure of how far opera in America has progressed since that, when the Baltimore Opera Company opens its 45th season tonight with "La Traviata" under Corsaro's direction, his Violetta, sung by soprano Maria Pellegrini, will shed real tears before her wretched death. And the men of the chorus will smoke real cigars during the glittering ballroom scene.
That change owes as much to Corsaro as anyone. He has directed 175 operas, in addition to serving as artistic director of the Actor's Studio in New York. As one who has spent virtually his entire adult life in the theater arts -- as actor, director and writer -- the sixtysomething director has seen his ideas about acting in opera vindicated.
"Opera has become a director's art," he says. "For a while in Europe, people were so jaundiced by blown-up travesties of productions that became scandals that the scandal itself became the occasion. If a director wasn't booed for his efforts, the production was considered a failure."
Practically from the beginning of opera, people have been arguing over which ought to come first, the words or the music. "Prima la musica e poi le parole" -- first the music and then the words -- seems to be the modern view. But it wasn't always so.
The vicissitudes of fashion are apparent even in the various incarnations "La Traviata" has undergone. Based on a famous novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, "La Dame aux camelias," it is the story of a famous 19th-century Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis, whom Dumas knew personally.
In Verdi's opera, the courtesan is Violetta, who falls in love with Alfredo Germont, a young nobleman. They go off together to a country house near Paris, but Alfredo's father appears when Alfredo is away and he persuades Violetta to give up the affair for the young man's own good.
Violetta returns to her old life and ways. By chance she meets Alfredo at a ball. But he is unaware of the reason for her leaving him and spurns her. Later, he learns the truth, but it is too late -- Violetta is dying of tuberculosis. Alfredo rushes to her side as death is about to claim her, in time to express his undying love.
"This was Verdi's first naturalistic opera," Corsaro says. "It is very realistic in its treatment of the characters. And yet it was a flop initially. It only came to life after it was revived with performers who could act."
Indeed, both Dumas' play and Verdi's opera created scandals. The story was denounced as an invitation to free love and an assault on marriage. Both play and opera became symbols of revolt against the sexual mores of their day.
The 1853 premiere of "La Traviata," moreover, was a fiasco. The audience was shocked to see contemporary dress in an opera, which in Verdi's day were virtually always set in the past and performed "in costume." The buxom soprano who played the role of Violetta was totally unconvincing as Dumas' frail tuberculosis victim. The audience hissed and shouted its disapproval.
Verdi revised the opera and had his characters wear costumes from the time of Louis XIII, a century earlier. He found a Violetta who looked the part, and he insisted on a production worthy of his conception.
"Traviata" eventually went on to become one of the great tear-jerkers of all time.
Corsaro has staged the Baltimore Opera's "Traviata" in 19th-century costume, just as Verdi intended. But he is leery of recent attempts to "update" the great classics merely for the sake of shock value.
" 'Traviata' has been done in Trump Tower, with Violetta dying of AIDS. 'Cosi Fan Tutti' has been set in a Brooklyn diner, and 'La Boheme' in a post-modern artist's loft," he says, shaking his head. "I see 'Traviata' as a small opera, intimate and realistic," he adds. "It's not 'grand opera' at all in that sense."
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When:8:15 p.m. Oct. 14, Oct. 20, Oct. 21; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18; 3:30 p.m. Oct. 22
$ Call: (410) 727-6000