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Sunday, July 21, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don't Call Her Diva -- Soprano Lauren Flanigan, Starring In Seattle Opera's `LA Traviata,' Has No Patience With Big Attitudes

Seattle Times Music Critic

Think Madonna.

Yes, it is the Material Girl, that self-made and constantly reinvented woman of our time, who is the contemporary inspiration for soprano Lauren Flanigan's interpretation of the doomed heroine Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata."

Let us hasten to note that when Seattle Opera presents "La Traviata" as the first show in its 1996-97 season (opening Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Opera House), it will not be in some stark contemporary interpretation, set in cyberspace or a nightclub. It will be "more or less a traditional production," as Flanigan puts it, but also one that views the heroine with a decidedly modern eye.

"I always take the role apart," Flanigan says, "and completely re-examine why I'm doing it. You can call Violetta a lot of things; you can call her a member of the demimonde, but what is that really? She is a self-educated, self-made creation, just like Madonna. On one level she commands respect; on another, she's not taken seriously. No matter how smart she is, she is a person who offers services that are paid for."

No diva attitudes

Tall, vital, opinionated, red-haired and golden-voiced, Flanigan has no patience with conventional diva attitudes. At 38, she's still on the young side for a singer who has made it on the big opera stages, from La Scala to New York to San Francisco.

"You'll never find me in big hair and a big dress," she declares.

"I'm not just a songbird. That's not me. I'm a theater person, and I don't talk about `the voice' as if it were some disembodied entity."

Flanigan isn't afraid to butt coiffures a little. When she made her La Scala debut last March in Verdi's "Nabucco," she ran up against some attitude from the famed conductor Riccardo Muti.

"He called me `California,' " the San Francisco-born soprano remembers.

"He didn't like this and didn't like that: my glasses (trendy-looking ovals with pink-tinted lenses), my bottle of drinking water. He went on this big harangue about how you never saw Caruso walking around with a bottle of water.

"But in the end, we got along fine. I achieved his standard; it was hard to do, but worth it. And I didn't have to act like a diva."

Artistic differences

Flanigan also has had her share of disagreements with Seattle Opera's general director Speight Jenkins, who hired her to sing such roles as Donna Anna (in "Don Giovanni") and the Governess (in "The Turn of the Screw").

"I flew out to audition, and Speight liked me and hired me," Flanigan says.

"I was supposed to come back to do Lucia (in `Lucia di Lammermoor'). But we had differences of opinion about how it should be done, so I didn't. None of this affects my opinion about Speight, though; I respect him very much. He's one of the three greatest opera managers in the country - a real visionary."

One of those differences of opinion centered around the optional high notes that sopranos have historically added to the scores of operas (including both "Lucia" and "Traviata"), so that audiences have come to believe those high notes actually were written by the composer.

In the big Act I aria of "La Traviata," many sopranos interpolate a big high note, an E-flat, just prior to the conclusion of Sempre libera. Flanigan will be quick to remind you that there is no E-flat in Verdi's score.

"It's not that I have a problem singing the note," she says.

"I know that note is there; I've been singing higher notes, optional Fs, in another place in the same aria during rehearsals. But I'm going to decide in performance whether or not to sing that final high E-flat. It'll depend on how the role is going emotionally - if I'm feeling more in denial of the potential love affair, or whether I'm responding more in the direction of passion."

Interpreting "La Traviata"

In "La Traviata," which premiered 143 years ago, Flanigan's title role is sometimes decorously translated as "The Woman Gone Astray": she is a high-class Parisian courtesan named Violetta, who is already dying of consumption when we meet her at a party in Act I. Although she has vowed to retain her freedom and never fall in love, she succumbs to the passion of the young and well-born Alfredo (a tenor, of course), and goes off to live with him in the country.

Enter Alfredo's father, who confronts Violetta to tell her that her illicit love affair with his son is bringing scandal down upon the entire family, ruining the marriage prospects of Alfredo's beloved sister. Violetta nobly renounces Alfredo and goes off to a previous protector, only to be publicly insulted by Alfredo at a party, where he provokes a duel with her escort. In the opera's final moments, Alfredo has learned about her sacrifice and goes to ask her forgiveness, but he arrives only shortly before one of the most famous death scenes in 19th-century opera.

How to interpret all this in the 1990s, when live-in love affairs are no longer generally perceived as deeply shocking, is a matter that has concerned Flanigan and the production's stage director, Richard Corley, who also staged "La Traviata" with her at Opera Omaha.

In Flanigan's view, Alfredo's father and Violetta have a shared past - one which makes the father's demand that she renounce Alfredo considerably more ironic. Flanigan is willing to admit that she is "pushing the envelope a bit to make a statement," arriving at the Act I party in stark black that she calls "very much Madame X" (referring to the famous John Singer Sargent portrait).

If Flanigan is responding to the role with the impetuosity of youth, she will have plenty of company. All the major singers are young; all have appeared here before. Playing Alfredo is Paul Charles Clarke, an English tenor who made his company debut last season as the Duke in the Silver Series (alternate cast) of "Rigoletto." Gordon Hawkins, who has sung the title role in "Rigoletto" here (among other roles), will portray Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont.

In the orchestra pit will be Seattle Symphony maestro Gerard Schwarz, who has conducted several other Seattle Opera productions (he also has worked with Flanigan in Seattle's "Don Giovanni" and in concerts of the Mostly Mozart Festival, of which Schwarz is music director).

The sets are borrowed from the Chicago Lyric Opera and designed by Desmond Heeley. It has been eight years since Seattle audiences heard "La Traviata," which was staged here in 1988 with Carol Vaness in the title role.

One more important note: although Seattle Opera almost always opens its productions on a Saturday, this one opens on a Wednesday. Check those tickets. There are eight performances, through Aug. 10; running time is just under three hours, and performances start at 7:30 p.m. (2 p.m. for the Sunday matinee). For tickets ($30-$97) and other information, call 389-7676.

And if recent company history is any indication, this one will sell out. If you decide you want to go, don't dawdle.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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