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Theatre & Performance Arin Arbus on directing Canadian Opera Company’s La Traviata

Arin Arbus doesn’t believe that she needed to give La Traviata a modern setting to connect with the audience.

Phyllis Graber Jense

Arin Arbus is a talented, celebrated, thirtysomething theatre director based in New York, whose off-Broadway company, Theatre for a New Audience, specializes in the work of Shakespeare. She's also the director of the Canadian Opera Company's production of La Traviata, opening Thursday night in Toronto. It's only her second foray into the world of opera. The Globe and Mail sat down to talk with her about working in opera and her thoughts on the famous Verdi work she's directing, as La Traviata entered its last week of rehearsals.

So, you're a young person …

[laughs] Relatively!

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… and your work is more in the theatre than in opera. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage as you navigate this very conventional world of standard-repertoire opera?

I really don't know. I feel like I've been in similar situations a number of times in my life where I'm sort of out of my depth. When I first started working on Shakespeare, I had no training in it. I didn't major in theatre in college. I was sort of thrown into it. Probably if I had had training in directing Shakespeare, I wouldn't have made some of the mistakes that I made, but I also feel I may have carried some baggage with me and I feel a little bit the same in this situation. I feel there's an advantage here because I'm coming at it trying to connect in a personal way with the music and the characters and the situations.

The other thing that puts you at odds with the world you're entering as a director, of course, is your gender. Have you felt that keenly? It is a very traditional world, to say the least.

You do confront it just as a woman going through the world. You are faced with masculine roles, patriarchal expectations. But I must say I haven't felt in any way beaten down by those systems. Certainly with Shakespeare you have a little bit of an advantage as a woman because the plays have been interpreted for so many hundreds of years by men. And I don't know how exactly being a woman shapes your interpretation of literature, but it does, in some way, I'm sure.

If you're talking about Shakespeare being interpreted by men, you're doing La Traviata, an iconic woman's story, that's also been interpreted historically solely by men. So I would think it's an enormous advantage to have a female perspective on this story. Because isn't it a story that's traditionally really misinterpreted?

In what way?

To see Violetta as a victim.

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Oh, yeah. Violetta is no victim. She chooses her fate. She is this very complicated person with, I feel, a lot of dreams that she has kept down, dreams deferred and a lot of self-loathing. She's a smart businesswoman, she has achieved a tremendous amount in a very short period of time – you know, the character is probably 23 years old – and to be a girl from some poor background, without parents, to climb to the top of that world of the Parisian courtesan is just a startling achievement. But the cost of that is that there is very little meaning in her life – it's a life of empty pleasures. So I think you see her heart sort of cracking open when she confronts Alfredo's love for her; you see her remembering something about who she is and what she wants for her life. I think she wants to leave her former life, marry Alfredo and have a family. But when Alfredo's father, Germont, comes to tell her she must abandon Alfredo for the good of his daughter's and his family's reputation, I think she realizes that in some way she can have a family – Germont is sort of a surrogate father, after all – but in order to do that, she must sacrifice herself – her love for Alfredo. So she makes a sacrifice, but it's to have something meaningful.

You've set the opera in the 1850s, when it was written. But you're trying to create a fresh look at this piece, and I wonder if by setting it then you don't run the risk of lulling people into thinking this is just another opulent, conventional production of Traviata.

I have come up with this question many times with many different productions and, ultimately, where I land on it is that it's not the setting that makes something feel urgent and alive. That is just the surface. It's going to live or die, you're going to connect to it or not, be moved by it or not, based on what's happening between the people. So I think from a dramaturgical point of view, you have to figure out what this world is, what are the values in that world and how do I represent that on stage. Does it fall apart if you put people in jeans? I think in this case, it kind of does. It doesn't need that – the opera exists in its own time, but speaks to us of our time, too.

La Traviata runs Oct. 8 to Nov. 6 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (coc.ca).

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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