Interview w/Louisa Muller

Stage Director of a new production of La Traviata at Santa Fe Opera 2024

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
Share This:

Louisa Muller is the stage director of a new production of “La Traviata” at Santa Fe Opera for its 2024 Summer Season. A conversation on Zoom found Muller in the English countryside, where she was about to open a first-ever production of Rameau’s comic Baroque opera “Platée” for Garsington Opera, a summer pavilion on the grounds of Wormsley Estate, in Stokenchurch. While “Platée” is mostly unfamiliar with audiences, “La Traviata” is very much the opposite—so well-known to opera lovers that Muller chose to set the Santa Fe production in a different era—1939 Paris—as the winds of war swept through Europe and Parisians were partying in the face of impending doom. “I think there needs to be a good reason to reset an opera in a different era. In this case, we didn’t want audiences to sit back and know what to expect—we wanted them to sit forward. We want them to really watch and really listen. If you really pay attention you’ll realize that the libretto and score is incredibly nuanced and has real depth. That’s easy to forget because people think, ‘I know Traviata. I know what that is.’”

“In the late 30’s in Paris, I think there was a sort of desperation because everybody knew war was coming. They threw wild parties in a form of denial, all the way up through the summer of 1939. France entered the war in September. Paris was very much the cultural center of Europe at that time. You have every great writer, intellectual, painter, artist, fashion designer—I mean everybody was there. The bohemian crowd was rubbing elbows with this sort of wealthy elite. It’s not dissimilar to the world depicted in “Cabaret,” which took place in Berlin at the same time. France entered the war in September 39, but by the time the Nazi’s were marching down the Champs-Élysées, a quarter of the population has left. It really was a unique moment in time that never gets replicated.

In her version of Traviata, Muller wants to offer the tragic heroine, Violetta, “in all her fullness.” “We wanted to present a more nuanced character, one who is not defined by the sacrifice she makes.” Suffering with tuberculosis throughout the opera, the journey arc of a beautiful courtesan is more than tragedy, Muller says. “I think she has moments of bitterness and cruelty as well as her sort of saintliness. She does make this huge sacrifice of the man she loves, but I think to make her more than a victim of her circumstances is really important to me. And it helps that we have Mané Galoyan singing Violetta. We’ve worked a lot together in the past and she is a great actress.”

Q: You sometimes teach acting for singers at conservatories. What is it that you try to teach them?

A: At conservatories, students are taught the “right way” to do something. When they become professionals suddenly they are faced with the reality that they have a lot of choices to make. I like to empower singers to trust that they have something to say.

Q: Since Traviata’s music and libretto are set, you are left to “play” with the visual elements of storytelling. What have you come up with for the new Traviata?

A: We were really inspired by a bunch of photographs that we saw of Picasso’s studio. Obviously, that’s the right time period.

Q: Where was his studio—in Spain?

A: No, his studio was in France. Outside of Paris. It’s this wonderful sort of older architecture. With his modern, I mean modern at the time, art, on all the walls, there is a sort of juxtaposition with the architecture. Also, we’re thinking about the opera as a memory play.

Q: Can you explain that? A memory play?

A: (Traviata is) quite episodic actually, the way it’s laid out. I liked the idea that it’s Violetta replaying the major narrative arcs of her story—that we’re playing it out at the end of her life.

Q: How do you accomplish that?

A: The whole piece is played on a turntable. When we change from scene to scene, there isn’t a pause were we go to change the set. It should feel like four different locations, but also that they all sort of live in the same world. This world is her memory, and the Ball (Act Two) is seen through her eyes.

I think my job as a director feels more like illuminating what’s there rather than shoehorning it into some other idea.

Q: When you have a new production and all the singers have been in other productions of Traviata before, are they like, ‘OK, let’s see what she’s gonna do to me now.?’ Is there a certain kind of attitude that you have to overcome?

A: Okay, usually it’s like that. I don’t think it’s gonna be like that with this particular group of young singers. I find in general that singers who’ve done their roles before are actually hungry for more input and they’re eager to find something, some new layer, or some new moments, or to find it in a different way. It’s a discovery and an excavation.

Q: Was it music that drew you to directing opera? How did you get into that particular niche?

A: There’s a mix of things. I trained as a singer. I always wanted to be a director, and I also had a theater background as well. I think it’s certainly the music as an element of storytelling that continues to draw me to it. There’s nothing like living inside of a score. There’s so much information, musically.

As a director, I think you are always responding to something emotional. That feels more primal than just responding to text. I think your whole body has a reaction to it. It immediately moves out of the academic or the intellectual and immediately moves into something that is a full-body experience. An emotional experience. Yeah, I love it.

Imagine how many hours alone Tracy K. Smith spent on her way to becoming the 22nd Poet Laureate of the...
Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker was the keynote speaker for the rededication ceremony of the Marian Anderson Hall in Kimmel Center...
Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka-Salonen was on the Philadelphia Orchestra podium for two weekends in May. The first weekend he conducted Sibelius’s...
Search CultureVulture