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Ask the students to read the synopsis of the opera. At first, it might seem fairly complex, however like all good stories, it can be distilled down into something far simpler.
Have the students imagine that they have been asked to write a synopsis of their own, perhaps for a programme, with a strict word count of 100 words. See if they can write this synopsis without missing any of the essential plot developments (they might, for example, decide that some of the minor characters are not important enough to mention at all.)
Objective: To understand and explore different characters’ journeys
When opera singers prepare a role, they often like to think about their character’s ‘journey’. This means the specific series of thoughts and events that happen to their character between the opera’s beginning and end.
In pairs, have the students choose who will be exploring Alfredo’s character and who will explore Violetta’s. Ask the students to plot their chosen character’s ‘journey’, using key episodes of either thought or action which they think are significant for their character’s story and compare the two characters’ journeys. Where do they differ? Why are those moments important? Are these moments when interesting scenes might be written?
Objective: To explore how operas are structured
Operas are often organised into set pieces - duets, arias and big chorus numbers for example. Asking the students to use their character’s ‘journey’:
Look again at the key episodes that they chose for their character. What set piece would they choose for each episode? Would it be a duet, aria or big ensemble number?
Which other characters would be on stage at these moments?
Ensure the students justify their choices. Why have they made them?
Key Stage 3
Objective: To write the words for your own aria
Listen to this section of Violetta’s aria ‘Sempre Libera’ . After meeting Alfredo, she is weighing up whether she should continue her life of careless pleasure, or allow herself to fall in love with him.
Assign the students another moment from their character’s ‘journey’, and write the words for an aria that they might sing at that point. To help, here is an example of an English translation of one of the arias from La traviata.
Have the students consider:
Ask the students to reflect on what the words of their ‘aria’ show us about the thoughts of the character? Keeping in mind that it has to be sung in the first person.
Key Stage 4
Themes in La traviata
Objective: To explore the opera’s prelude
Writers often use the openings of their works to establish the mood and themes that will follow. Think of Macbeth or Orwell’s 1984, for example. Opera composers use overtures or preludes to do the same. With your class, With your class, listen to the opening of the prelude to La traviata. Ask the students to identify two different emotional themes that the music evokes.
For each of the two music themes, encourage the class to think of what might be being described - they might think of places or psychological themes.
Share the class’s responses in an open discussion. Where are they similar? Where are they different? Why?
Now, using either their two ideas or someone else’s, write an introductory paragraph establishing an imaginary setting to the story of La traviata. Listen to the music again. Does their paragraph fit?
Objective: To think about staging the prelude
As a class, read the synopsis of La traviata. Now return to the prelude. Ask the students to decide what ideas the two musical themes now refer to. With this in mind, and remembering that the whole prelude is three-and-a-half minutes long, see if they can now write a suggested staging.
Where is the prelude set? Remind the students that they don’t have to stick to the literal setting suggested in the synopsis. Opera directors set operas in all sorts of places.
Who do we see in the prelude? Remember they have a chorus to work with.
Why have they chosen these ideas? How does it help clarify the two themes that they have identified?
Objective: To explore subtexts
The tension in La traviata is established because Violetta and Alfredo both want to enjoy a life of love and pleasure, but live in a society where the social rules won’t allow them to. Listen to Violetta’s famous aria - 'Sempre Libera (Forever free)'.
In groups, have the students find where in the opera they think this aria comes. She is singing about leading a life seeking joy and pleasure. Do we believe her? Is it important that there seems to be somebody else on stage listening to her? What in the music helps us to understand what she is really feeling? How important is her failing health at this moment?
Individually, write Violetta’s private diary entry for this same moment in the plot. See if they can capture her conflicting emotions.
Key Stage 4
Objective: To explore controversy surrounding La traviata
When this opera was first performed, it was met with enormous controversy. Italian censors tried to get Verdi to change it, and the London Times described it as ‘the poetry of the brothel […] hideous and abominable’.
Have students consider why it might have been so controversial. Was it the characters? The theme? The setting? Are there themes in the story that could still be considered controversial today?
Write a letter to the Times of 1856, defending the opera. The students can either choose to write ‘from the future’ or in the style of the time.