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Why are 2017 UK students performing a 164-year-old opera?

The challenge of being 'La Traviata's Violetta

Junghyun Lee and Jessica Bayne, who sing the role of Violetta in UK Opera Theatre's "La Traviata" talk about the challenges of the part, particularly her signature aria, "Sempre Libera."
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Junghyun Lee and Jessica Bayne, who sing the role of Violetta in UK Opera Theatre's "La Traviata" talk about the challenges of the part, particularly her signature aria, "Sempre Libera."

This weekend, the University of Kentucky voice students return to the stage at Singletary Center for the Arts to present Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera, “La Traviata.”

The show is based on “La Dame aux Camélias,” a French novel by Alexandre Dumas that was quickly adapted into a play and then the opera. It’s the story of a courtesan, a term often regarded as synonymous with mistress or prostitute, who finds true love with a young admirer from a wealthy family. But drama ensues both from his family’s objections to her, and her illness: tuberculosis.

Will Violetta and Alfredo find happiness? Will they find it before she dies? (Hint: It is an opera.)

So what is it about this Old World story with its Old World music that keeps it at or near the top of lists of most popular operas and makes it influential in popular culture — “Moulin Rouge” and “Pretty Woman” (recently announced for a Broadway musical version starring Kentuckian Steve Kazee) are among the modern offerings that have borrowed from the show’s plot.

Here are a few reasons the show endures, and other info for the opera bluffer.

Junghyun Lee, as Violetta, sang the signature aria in “La Traviata,” “Sempre Libera.” Lee alternates in the lead role with Jessica Bayne. Rich Copley

The Soprano

The original title for “La Traviata” was “Violetta,” if that tells you anything about how important the character is to the story. Not only is the exuberant party girl the center of attention, but she gets one of the defining arias of the operatic repertoire, “Sempre libera.”

“It’s a tour de force,” UK Opera director Everett McCorvey says. “Sopranos use it as a vehicle to show their skill in performances and auditions.”

Junghyun Lee, one of two singers playing Violetta in UK’s production, says, “I waited for this role for 10 years. Violetta can show different colors of the soprano’s voice, so she can sing with very coloratura and light, and then in a second, she’d going to be very dramatic. So it shows the talent of sopranos, and it’s a very important role.”

Violetta (Junghyun Lee) and Alfredo (Thabang Masango) declare their love for each other in the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Rich Copley

The romance

Jessica Bayne sings the role of Violetta in Cast 1 of UK Opera Theatre’s production of “La Traviata.” Philip Groshong

In her description of “Sempre libera,” the other UK Violetta, Jessica Bayne, talks of the broader appeal of the “Traviata” story.

“There’s confusion and there’s excitement, there’s fight in the piece, and the music captures all of that in one thing,” she says.

Much like “Romeo & Juliet,” a William Shakespeare tragedy several centuries older, “Traviata” is a story of star-crossed lovers. And frankly, Violetta and Alfredo have it a bit worse, because in addition to the family conflict, she’s dying. This makes the stakes incredibly high as they sort through their issues, and nothing can illustrate high-stakes romance like opera.

The music

Despite the dominance of “Sempre Libera,” this ain’t a one-aria show.

“Verdi was known for his relationships between fathers and sons and fathers and daughter, and those come with powerful duets,” McCorvey says. “These are stories anyone can relate to.”

And of course, we have our lovers and their powerful story. Just remember, there’s a reason 10,000 Maniacs has a song called “Verdi Cries.”

UK Opera Theatre’s “La Traviata” is performed on a two-level stage in the Singletary Center for the Arts, which isn’t usually used as theater. Rich Copley

The theater

This production finds UK Opera settling into Singletary Center for the Arts after a long tenure at the Lexington Opera House. Singletary lacks the wing and overhead space usually needed for operas, because it’s designed as a concert hall. But it’s an on-campus venue, saving the company costs and the students and faculty travel time.

In several previous productions, including last spring’s “The Barber of Seville,” the problem of not having offstage space for sets and scenery was solved by a system of video screens. This time, the opera is using a two-level set to portray the various locations of the opera, designed by UK’s Robert Pickering.

“We miss the Opera House, and we hope to get back there someday,” McCorvey says. “But we are settling into the Singletary Center and beginning to understand what it needs.”

Rich Copley: 859-231-3217, @LexGoKY

If you go

‘La Traviata’

What: University of Kentucky Theatre’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, sung in Italian with English supertitles

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 and 7, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $38 adults, $33 senior adults, $13 students

Call: 859-257-4929