Alain Gauthier: La Traviata transported to the heart of the 1920s

Actualités lyriques


April 30, 2024

There was the onset of the pandemic, in spring 2020. Then, performance venues had to close again, in winter 2022. But the third time’s a charm: after two cancellations, Verdi’s La Traviata is poised once again to take the stage of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier by storm, and this time, it appears the planets have aligned to make it the right time. Opera lovers’ patience will at last be rewarded with a production that promises to be unforgettable! 

A major, Canada-wide co-production 


There are those classics that just never wane, one being the romantic and tragic story of Violetta and Alfredo. Its version set in 1920s Paris, conceived by director Alain Gauthier and his top-shelf design team, a production awash in elegance and sophisticated finesse, certainly delivers, and is sure to capture spectators’ hearts. 

This monumental production now concluding its tour in Montreal saw five Canadian opera companies join forces: the Edmonton Opera, the Manitoba Opera, the Vancouver Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, and the Opéra de Montréal. Such artistic bounty begat a work that matches its high ambitions, in which every detail is meticulously executed, and in which several extraordinarily accomplished designers from all over the country had hands-on involvement.   

“We wanted the fact of it being a Canada-wide coproduction to be reflected in the team as a whole,” explained the director. “Each opera house put forward collaborators whom it enjoyed working with, which introduced me to many talented individuals unknown to me before. I am absolutely delighted; I was surrounded by a dream team!” 

This brilliant bunch included Christina Poddubiuk, a versatile and profoundly researched artist, tasked all at once with designing sets, costumes, and props. “She was very conscientious of the era, but also highly imaginative. Immediately, she understood where we were going with it. The set is elaborate, there are lots of costumes and a lot of sparkle. It’s like a party for the eyes.” 

La Traviata in the world of cabaret 

The idea of setting the story in the 1920s first arose out of a parallel drawn between Violetta Valéry, La Traviata’s heroine, and Joséphine Baker, a dancer, singer, Parisian music hall celebrity, and above all, a liberated and strong woman.  

“Violetta is not Joséphine Baker, but we drew some inspiration. She is a woman with a lot of friends, a lot of admirers, and a lot of money. A businesswoman who manages her affairs. This strikes especially in Act 2, when she appears in confrontation,” reflected Alain. “It’s a version that stays very true to the original story and to the heroine’s personal saga. All we did was to shift the era, to bring it a bit closer to home. It remains, all in all, a fairly orthodox production, with a little touch of the 1920s that lends something more modern to the character.” 

Key roles for choristers: a finely woven tapestry of characters


Known for his love of acting—he graduated in theatre from UQÀM—the director took acute pleasure in digging, dissecting, researching, and developing comprehensive descriptions of all characters who appear on stage, including those played by chorus members.  

“I have a roughly fifteen-page document with forty biographies. I assigned a role to each and every chorister. For this production, I was inspired by people who gravitated to Paris at the time, who might have attended a Joséphine Baker premiere. I imagined romantic affairs and quarrels. All the choristers have their own little story.” 

Such meticulous preparation provided points of reference for each performer relative to the other characters, facilitating their interactions and improvisation. “For example, there’s a medical scientist who invented a test for detecting tuberculosis, a friend of Doctor Grenvil, and a businesswoman involved in a financial scandal, Martha Hanau. There’s also Babette, an American acrobat and impersonator, whom I imagined as wanting to break into the business and talk to producers, portrayed by other choristers. Basically, I gave the chorus members some guidelines and circumstances took on lives of their own!” 

It was a sheer delight, consequently, for audiences to see this tapestry come to life in an inspired performance, attired in a variety of costumes and carefully crafted details! 

Home, sweet home

After touring the country since 2018 with his Traviata, Alain Gauthier is elated to finally be presenting it to family and friends here in Montreal. “I’ve come full circle, in a way. The Opéra de Montréal is my alma mater. I met Michel Beaulac 30 years ago, when I was a young directing trainee with the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, then we became colleagues when I became a full-time stage director. The Opéra de Montréal shaped and guided me.” 

Alain in fact initially explored the technical side of production before diving headlong into his dream. “I decided to leave my stable job and devote myself to directing when I started to become known in the United States. It scared me, but it hasn’t stopped since; I continuously kept working. I’ve had wonderful successes, I’ve been offered some wonderful platforms, I’ve travelled, and taken on challenges. I feel very privileged!”  

It’s a privilege that now brings him back home to his artistic family, to present a truly grand and exquisite Romantic opera. 

To fall under the spell of this production, led by a cast of golden performers - including Talise Trevigne, who dons her Violetta costumes for the second time, and James Westman, a “Germont-born” who has taken on the role more than a hundred times - get your tickets right here