La Traviata: Alison Moritz

October 29, 2018 | By Opera Colorado | La Traviata
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Stage Director Alison Moritz. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

By Kelly Maxwell

When stage director Alison Moritz gives notes in a rehearsal, she delivers them with her entire being. She gestures and moves through her direction and you can tell that she feels it. Moritz navigates the nuanced space between psychologist, dramaturg, linguist, and choreographer with ease. Seemingly born to be an opera director, Moritz embodies the that if you do what you love, you’ll truly never work a day in your life. Read on to learn more about what really goes into directing an opera and the importance of identifying and sticking to your own unique path.

Opera Colorado’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata opens on November 3, 2018.

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How do you feel right about the show, as you’re deep in the process of getting this thing on its legs?

The initial staging is always like being in the middle of a forest or in the middle of a battle where you can only see a couple of feet in front of you. Joyce Carol Oates had this wonderful quote about writing, which is that writing is like pushing a dirty peanut across the floor with your nose. To me, that is what initial staging feels like. Sometimes it is feel really painstaking. Of course, there’s so much I can study and plan in advance, but that all needs to change in the first weeks when I meet these people and want to accommodate their own life stories and their unique points of view. Communication is so key in opera. Cecilia Violetta López has a relationship to this material, and she has a point of view as an artist, and it’s my job to not only have my own point of view but to facilitate her process. Within the same room you’ll have these different kinds of people who come at the same material with a different metabolism. I have to figure out not just the psychology of the characters, but the psychology of the people with whom I’m working. I’ve done this enough times to know that we always end up with something that’s even better than I could’ve planned.

Stage director Alison Moritz and soprano Cecilia Violetta López in rehearsal for Verdi’s La Traviata. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

What’s your favorite part of the process?

I would say I really love getting toward the final room run because the focus is still on the heat of individual performances. We can see the whole picture coming together and we start to shift the weight of the responsibility from me to the performers. It really does need to be their story and live in their bodies and their hearts and minds. Everything technical, as we move into the theater, is really about putting those performances in a strong frame so it can be communicated to the audience in a way that is compelling. I wouldn’t’ say design is the icing on the cake, but when you have really compelling performers, there’s just something so wonderful about watching them take the reins and start to sing with the orchestra. That last week really accelerates to where you’re adding a new element every day, and it’s just really wonderful to see people take ownership of this story.

Do you have a moment in La Traviata that stands out for you as your favorite?

I think Violetta singing “Addio, del passato” because the idea of a person nearing the end of their life and reckoning with their choices, a person who’s still so young and full of potential, is a really beautiful moment of catharsis. One of the reasons we go to the opera is to experience that.

To be a stage director for opera in particular, what a wild ride. How did you get here?

I always loved opera. When I was a little kid, if we were at a restaurant, I would take two spoons and play with them like they were on the stage of the table. I always had an idea of how I thought stories should be told in space. I grew up, interested in all of the things that kids who are not very sporty are interested in. It just turned out that by the time I was in my early and mid-20s, opera combined everything that I loved. It was this window onto the world that I could keep learning for the rest of my life. How did I become an opera director? In a way, for my temperament, I always was an opera director. It did take me a while to find it because it is unusual and also because when I saw other opera directors, I didn’t identify with them. They weren’t telling my story. I didn’t always see my view of the world represented on stage, and I think that’s probably a common experience for young people in general, but maybe particularly for young women.

Stage director Alison Moritz in rehearsal for Verdi’s La Traviata. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

What has your experience been like being a young woman in this industry?

It’s challenging at large in the year 2018. For me, it’s always just one level trickier in the arts because we work in a casual and inspired environment. People need to be able to be free with their ideas, to be able to touch other people, and just make sure they’re creating an environment where everybody can do their best work. More importantly, if people make mistakes because they’re human, your attitude toward mistakes and changing has to be with a growth mindset. You have to recognize the possibility that people can make mistakes and become better for it. I think that’s really key to the artistic process at large. When I was starting out, honestly, I was only assisting men. I remember I showed up to work on day assisting someone, and I was wearing a cute dress to work. He was like, “Okay, now Alison’s going to play all the 30 dead bodies in this scene.” I was running around, thinking, “I need to start being very practical in what I wear to work.” I looked at all the directors I knew, and they were all nice guys, but they were always wearing button-down shirts and jeans to work; they looked professional but artistic. So, I started doing that and I thought, “Now I have this uniform that is not mine, it doesn’t make me feel like myself, and it doesn’t help anyone else know how to engage with me when they meet me.” It seems like a really small example, but it was a meaningful one because it really represents this overarching thing, not really knowing what artistic authority should look like. Now I think it can look like almost anything and that’s sort of the point. But I would also question the importance of authority. Opera is traditionally a very hierarchical process, and maybe one of the things that will move opera into the 21st century is decentralizing it and incorporating more voices at more levels.

Tell me about the team you’re working with.

One of the really wonderful things about traveling to do this is that you do end up meeting old friends along the way. In this case it’s a really wonderful dynamic in the room in that our staging staff is entirely female, and it’s a lot of people that I’ve worked with before. Frances Rabalais, the assistant director, is new to me. Before we started staging, I went out to dinner with her and I asked her what she was interested in and what would be helpful for her in this process, getting the chance to try something new. Turns out, she just became fight certified, and we’re looking for ways to include more of her physicality in some of the scenes. I love meeting people where they are along the way and allowing those idiosyncrasies to inform the process. I would just say I think it’s certainly not a prerequisite to have all ladies in the room, but in this case, it’s a very positive dynamic. It’s a good match for this story.

What do you want the audience to walk away with?

I think what I really want is for people to get a sense that although it might be true that bad and tragic things happen in the world, those events are what shape us and are what cause opportunities for growth and change. That is the human condition. It was true in Verdi’s time and it is true today. That makes this a relevant and contemporary opera. One of the beautiful things at the end is that it isn’t only Violetta who’s redeemed because of her lifestyle choices; it’s also Alfredo and Germont who are redeemed for their treatment of Violetta and the fact that they learned something. We can all learn a lot about empathy, how to look at the world with fresh eyes, and how to not carry around so many preconceived notions about people with us. I think everybody will take something different away from it. Every time I see La Traviata, I take away something different.

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