Behind the scenes: La traviata assistant director Warwick Doddrell

July 15, 2022 by Murray Dahm
Read on for article

Opera Australia assistant director for the La traviata season  Warwick Doddrell was first bitten by the theatre bug in the 1990s watching the Essgee Entertainment productions of Gilbert & Sullivan show starring Jon English (The Pirates of Penzance (1994), The Mikado (1995) and H.M.S. Pinafore (1997).

Warwick Doddrell

Once bitten, Doddrell went on to study film and theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and then a Master’s in directing in Sydney at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). He was drawn to the “hands on” and “collaborative” approach of making theatre, it was more immediate than film. At NIDA, he was lectured by Con Costi – who he has assisted in the past and who he assists again in this Elijah Moshinsky production of La traviata. Doddrell got into opera specifically through a directing internship for the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of Carmen – he fell in love with the scale of the work in addition to everything else. The two have worked together several times and have developed a wonderful relationship – Doddrell loves the learning opportunities of his opera directing apprenticeship. This sumptuous late-Victorian/Edwardian era production was first seen in 1994, the same year, incidentally, as Doddrell was first bitten by the theatre bug. The production was directed in Sydney before being taken down to Melbourne for a season and then brought back to Sydney. Costi and Doddrell also worked together on the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of La traviata in 2021.

Revisiting such a beloved production always brings new ways of exploring characters as does exploring different settings for the same opera (the Handa production was set in the 1950s, this one at the end of the 19th or turn of the 20thcentury). Such settings allow different understandings and allegories to come to the fore in the bringing of the characters and music to the stage. Movement and gesture in each age in which the opera is sent are different and things, such as the relationship between courtesan and client, in each age also different. This has always been a challenge for La traviata. Between the time when the novel on which the opera was eventually based, La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, was published in 1848 and his adaptation of it as a play in 1852, the world and culture of the courtesan had already changed. The courtesan upon whom Violetta in the opera is based, the real-life Marie Duplessis who became Marguerite Gautier in the novel, was the most famous courtesan in Paris at her death in 1847 at the age of only 23. She was the height of Parisian fashion, setting trends of dress and hairstyle with her every outing. She became incredibly wealthy, pursued by several men at once. She was renowned for her discretion, wit, conversation and intelligence. Among her lovers was the composer and pianist, Franz Liszt. To reduce her to a high-class prostitute (which has, unfortunately, often been done) is to totally misunderstand and reduce the complexities of the relationships at play (all of which are on display in the opera). Yes, a physical relationship was part of her world, but it was only one part. Duplessis also maintained good relationships with her former lovers and some of her clients maintained purely platonic relationships with her.

What is more, exploring the same production on a different stage (and with different casts) allows other aspects of the opera to be explored. The production, designed with the small stage of the Sydney Opera House in mind, is framed by a black box in Melbourne (so it takes up no more space than in Sydney) and this actually enhances the cinematic framing of the sets for each scene of the opera which “propels us into the room.” There are many moments of beautiful stage pictures and beautiful faming of performers.

There are many such considerations to include in any production of La traviata; Dodderell talked of the “touchstones” used for the singers to physicalize their characters – such as the style of the 1950s (for the Handa production) especially the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the standards of beauty of the time. For this production, something entirely different is in order – the look of “suffering from tuberculosis was seen as the height of fashion” (as outlined in Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion, and Disease by Carolyn A. Day). Having a curvy 1950s production or one closer in time to the original means that there “is very different energy for us to play with.” The emphasis of this production is on realism, each set has a ceiling and is set at an angle to draw you in to the action. Wearing period clothes such as corsets and hoop skirts completely change how a performer stands and moves; in contrast to how someone wearing a 1950s dress would move by comparison.

The casts from the three different La traviata – Stacey Alleaume is common to all three as Violetta and as such a “detailed actress” has had many conversations of the details of the historical context. Despite some common performers, the tone of each production changes with new nuances brought to each new season of the opera, even one which is familiar and has been often done before. Such discussions explore the meaning of phrases and make her “a joy to work with” for Doddrell. And those little details “really elevate the performance in a way that is intangible”. Alleaume comes afresh to each production, open for new interpretations of different aspects of the work. Of course, in these productions Alleaume has worked with different Alfredos and so her relationship with each tenor is slightly different.

In general, Doddrell focuses on the parts of the show which director Con Costi (who is focussed on the principal performers and the big pictures) does not have enough time to cover. Warwick can look after the chorus, the actors and other aspects of the production and so the two’s work compliment one another’s to complete the direction and overall picture of the opera. The performance style is characterised by Doddrell as “moment to moment;” everything, down to the tiniest detail, around the performers has a purpose so they should too. He admires Con’s eye for detail and desire to achieve an authentic performance in opera – seeing how that process operates in rehearsal and then on to the stage is, to Doddrell, fascinating. After this, he assists Liesel Badorrek directing Carmen on Cockatoo Island (25 November-18 December) but, before that, do get along to La traviata and see how many aspects of the opera you can spot.


Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

Got something to say about this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.