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UI presents romantic and dramatic opera

BY SAMANTHA GENTRY | JANUARY 27, 2011 7:10 AM

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For University of Iowa senior Chaz Williams-Ali, being the only undergraduate student in a group of six principal actors could have been intimidating. But his youth isn’t holding him back — having one of the lead roles in La Traviata is his dream come true.

“La Traviata is the first opera I saw as a teenager, so being able to sing and act in it is a proud moment for me,” Williams-Ali said. “It’s like I’m coming full circle.”

He plays in a blues band and sings at church, but for him opera is “a whole other animal,” even if he has sung it for six years.

“Opera is freedom through discipline, but I believe it is a grand art,” he said. “Not only do you have to sound good and have the right technique, but you also have to remember Italian and the translation. It’s pretty difficult.”

Williams-Ali and his fellow musicians will perform The Martha Ellen Type Opera Theater production of La Traviata at 8 p.m. today at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St.

Performances will continue at 8 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Jan. 30. Admission is $20 for general public, $15 for seniors, $10 for youth, and $5 for UI students with valid IDs.

The opera is based on the romantic, yet tragic, novel La Dame aux Camélias, by Alexandre Dumas (fils). It follows the life of Violetta, a prostitute, who falls in love with suitor Alfredo, and the audience follows them through their lives as they struggle with sickness, loss, and love.

La Traviata is performed in Italian with little dialogue. But none of the actors are fluent in Italian.
Vocal and opera coach Shari Rhoads has been working with the actors since their first rehearsal in August. Using a piano, she taught the cast members every note and word.

“I taught them Italian as if they were singing in Italy,” she said. “I’m very particular about their style and how they sing it.”

Though many of the cast members have studied Italian, each actor was required to study the diction of the language. With this method, the singers learned how to pronounce the language without having full knowledge of it.

“I took diction freshman year, but it wasn’t until junior year when I felt like you could throw any Italian at me,” Williams-Ali said. “It’s absolutely hard to learn to sing something before you can speak it.”

Rhoads rehearsed with the actors until late October, then she handed the cast over to Valorie Goodall, the guest director of La Traviata.

“[Goodall] took the concept and ran with the idea of setting the opera in the late-1950s,” Rhoads said.

This is the second time Goodall has been involved with a UI production; she directed The Tender Land in December 2006.

While some may be in awe of the powerful voices of the students, she believes the orchestra makes the difference.

“The music helps tell the story,” she said. “Even if you don’t know what the lyrics say, when the music gets scary, exciting, or more powerful, it helps you understand what’s going on.”

With a mix of Italian dialogue, student actors, and a classic romance, La Traviata is sure to please audiences.

“I think that the public will find this a remarkable element in the opera program at the university,” Rhoads said. “The students are amazing, and it’s a ‘don’t miss.’ Even if it’s snowing, go to the opera.”


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