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La Traviata — From A Forced Perspective

Tom Reed, Chorus

Verdi's La Traviata is among the loveliest of operas, and as someone lucky enough to be a member of the chorus in San Francisco Opera's resplendent production, I can tell you firsthand that everyone on stage had the most extraordinary time. This opera is filled with the kind of happy, big-crowd choruses that audiences adore! Dressed in sumptuous costumes we pack the stage with elegant festivity. The opulent set employs “forced perspective,” which is to say that in order to make the set appear larger, it actually grows narrower as one moves upstage, creating the illusion of depth and space. Now as we know, the upstage area is the realm of the chorus, and I can confide that things do tend to get just a bit tight up there. Compressing forty-four choristers, half of them in six-foot-wide Gone With The Wind hoopskirts, into an ever narrowing space requires perhaps a wee bit more force than perspective. But we manage it with astonishing grace and poise.

The curtain rose Tuesday night on a festive party bubbling with guests and courtesans. Some of us are lucky enough to be placed all the way down front where we get to exchange an hilarious anecdote with none other than Violetta, the principal soprano! But almost immediately we must move upstage to our positions for the famous “Libiamo” chorus. Now, the trek from my downstage left “laughing” position to my upstage right “drinking” position can be fraught with peril. Everyone moves at once. There's a lot for us to do, and it must all be accomplished in less than twenty seconds. There can be no train wrecks! For me it requires dodging principals, weaving through a boiling sea of moving furniture and guests, and avoiding at all cost the greatest faux pas of all — treading on those hoops. You can understand why the entire move had to be carefully choreographed and rehearsed. Yet last night it went off without a hitch!

Well...., we all expand just a little on opening night, taking up ever so slightly more space than we required in rehearsals. So just before the big move I nervously glanced upstage to survey the field of battle. To my horror, all was not as expected. I was supposed to pass between two chorus women, but forces beyond their control had shoved them tightly together. There they stood, practically joined at the hip, their hoopskirts bowing outward in opposite directions like a set of Siamese church bells. In one terrifying flash I realized that there would be no room for them to move apart, and no way for me to get around them. I was going to have to bowl my way right through them! At that same instant their eyes locked onto me like laser weapons that had found their target. Something in their fixed smiles seemed to say, “Try it and die!!”

There was no time to think. On cue the whole stage sprang into action. Choristers moved in all directions, supernumerary servants grabbed furniture and plowed into the fray, principals scrambled for the safety of downstage, and the fateful moment had arrived. With trepidation I pushed myself upstage toward my appointment with destiny. But just as I approached the blockade a miracle happened!

Out of somewhere a chorus gentleman squeezed forward to kiss the hand of the lady on the left, distracting her just long enough for me to pounce. In a move not unlike Quasimodo leaping onto the bells, I hopped onto the left hoopskirt while simultaneously swinging the other one up and away with my free foot. With a polite “Pardon me,” I then jammed myself between the two and forced my way through to the other side. Before the two women could react I made my getaway by hopping in behind a couple of supers who were valiantly fighting their way across the stage using a table as a battering ram. Riding its wake through the raging choral waters I was able to reach my destination on the far upstage right shore, where my assigned lady companions waited nervously. Pretending to kiss the hand of one, I deftly yanked her out of the way of a moving chair, wedged her into a corner, stuffed the other one onto an overcrowded sofa, and grabbed a glass of fake champagne just in time to join in the sparkling toast to love!

Throughout the scene the chorus kept up the jovial mood until Violetta nearly ruined it with her repeated fainting spells. Just as the chorus was heading upstage to dance we had to keep stopping and looking back to see what was wrong with her. And we had to pull these mass maneuvers off without looking like a giant accordion. Think it's easy? Try it yourself at your next hoopskirt party.

In the next act the plot turned morose, so we worked feverishly to restore the festive mood by faking a bull fight — no small accomplishment in tuxes and hoops — but once again a principal came in and ruined everything. This time it was Alfredo kicking up a ruckus downstage. We rushed forward, falling all over ourselves to hear what was going on, only to witness the ill-tempered Alfredo throwing a pile of cash in Violetta's face. It's always the principals!

From there on it was all downhill. In the last act we tried one last time to brighten things by whooping it up offstage as a bunch of drunken revelers, but meanwhile onstage some doctor was telling everyone that Violetta had only a few hours left to live. Honestly, how can a chorus compete with that much negative energy? We gave up and went home. And Violetta? She didn't even last six minutes. Another downer! Sorry. We really tried.