English Key Stage 4
Objective: To explore the opera’s prelude
- Writers often use the opening 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, 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
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.
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.
Image credits: La traviata, Festival 2014, photo by Richard Hubert Smith | La traviata Tour 2018, photos by Robert Workman