Cheat Sheet: La Traviata on Sydney Harbour

Everything you need to know about the world's most-performed opera.

Stacey Alleaume as Violetta in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour

Photo: Georges Antoni

Photo: Georges Antoni

Who was the composer?

A portrait of Giuseppe Verdi.

A portrait of Giuseppe Verdi.

A portrait of Giuseppe Verdi.

Giuseppe Verdi had a gift for taking a character marginalised by society and putting them centre stage, whether it be a hunchbacked jester in Rigoletto, an Ethiopian princess in Aida or a courtesan in La Traviata.

Verdi wrote big, beautiful melodies and expressive, dramatic orchestral music. As a composer, he was always seeking out strong subjects, demanding his librettists create realistic, human characterisations.

The composer was born in a small village in Parma in 1813 to a poor family. He became a music teacher and conductor before finding success as an opera composer. By the time he died in 1901, his fame was such that 200,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay their tribute.


What happens in the story?

Beautiful and carefree, the courtesan Violetta is the life of every party. But behind that dazzling smile, she knows that she is dying. Unaware of her troubles, the shy Alfredo is in love. Violetta is torn: is the promise of true love worth giving up her life of freedom?

She takes a chance on a life with Alfredo living in the country, and it seems she could be happy. But Alfredo's father has other ideas. He demands the impossible: Violetta leave Alfredo, for the sake of his family’s reputation.

Devastated, Violetta agrees and writes Alfredo a letter of farewell, concealing her love.

Alfredo is heartbroken and furious, and coming face to face with her at a ball, he delivers the ultimate insult.

Will Alfredo learn of Violetta’s undying love before she succumbs to her illness?


Rachelle Durkin in a giant chandelier in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour

Rachelle Durkin as Violetta in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour in 2012. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Rachelle Durkin as Violetta in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour

Rachelle Durkin as Violetta in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour in 2012. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Rachelle Durkin in a giant chandelier in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour

Rachelle Durkin as Violetta in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour in 2012. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Rachelle Durkin as Violetta in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour

Rachelle Durkin as Violetta in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour in 2012. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti


Who are the main characters?

Violetta: a popular courtesan

Alfredo Germont: her young admirer

Giorgio Germont: Alfredo’s father, and protector of the family name


What's the big hit?

The Brindisi, a drinking song to get any party started:


Something to listen out for

  • The delicate, high violin theme at the beginning of the prelude sounds beautiful and fragile — a symbol of Violetta’s consumption. You hear the theme again in the violins in Act III when Violetta is very ill.
  • Verdi was a master of conveying emotion through melody and instrument choice. Listen to how the mellow clarinet and cellos reflect Germont’s grief as he sings ‘Piangi, piangi’ to the devastated Violetta in Act II.

Watch Opera Australia's former Associate Music Director, Tony Legge, talk about the music of Verdi's La Traviata, providing key points to listen for throughout the opera.

Watch Opera Australia's former Associate Music Director, Tony Legge, talk about the music of Verdi's La Traviata, providing key points to listen for throughout the opera.


This production is...

A thrilling performance set on the especially designed Sydney Harbour stage with the Sydney Opera House as a backdrop and fireworks to end every show. Based on the first production to grace the iconic harbour stage by Francesca Zambello, La Traviata is the tragic story that inspired Moulin Rouge.

See Tess Schofield’s stunning costumes in this dramatic love affair between the charming Violetta and her defiant Alfredo. They define the debauchery of an era beset with extravagance and excess.

Verdi’s explosive melodies play out as the performers weave their way across Brian Thomson’s bold sets, specifically designed to make the most of the beautiful harbour location, including an awe-inspiring 3.5-tonne giant chandelier.

There are surprises abound, including some that extend beyond the stage, in this daring romance about life and lust in 19th Century Paris.

Fireworks during a performance of West Side Story on Sydney Harbour

Fireworks during a performance of West Side Story on Sydney Harbour in 2019. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Fireworks during a performance of West Side Story on Sydney Harbour in 2019. Photo: Hamilton Lund


A little history

It was in Paris that Verdi first saw the Dumas play The Lady of the CamelliasThe composer was inspired — at last, a ‘provocative idea’. He wrote to his librettist Francesco Piave, “I don’t want any of those everyday subjects that one can find by the hundreds.” Verdi believed the story of the fallen woman was a “subject for our own age”, and inspired, he wrote the score in just under a month — while working on Il Trovatore.

He wanted the story to confront his audience, and so set it in contemporary times. However, the 1853 premiere in Venice was not well received. Consumption causes its victims to waste away, and the overweight, middle-aged soprano in the title role was simply implausible. It seems the contemporary setting was also a mistake.

Verdi wrote to a friend, “La Traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine, or the singers'? Time will tell.”

The composer refused to allow another performance unless he could be sure of a talented cast. It took nearly a year before the opera was performed again in Venice. With a different cast, and a historical setting, La Traviata was an immense success. Today it is one of the most-performed operas in the world. 


Conversation starters

  • La Traviata has inspired plenty of popular culture: think Moulin Rouge or Pretty Woman.
  • In fact, when Edward takes Vivian to the opera in Pretty Woman, they see La Traviata. When he drives up to serenade her at the end of the movie, he plays a piece from the opera at top volume from his limo.
  • Consumption causes its victims to waste away — so casting an overweight soprano in the lead role spelled disaster for the opera’s premiere.
  • The inspiration for Violetta was a real woman, Marie Duplessis, a Parisian courtesan who passed away just five years before La Traviata opened in Venice. Dumas (who wrote the original play) was one of her lovers. When she died of tuberculosis at age 23, all of Paris mourned!

Rachelle Durkin as Violetta in La Traviata on Sydney Harbour in 2012.


In a nutshell

The composer: Verdi. The most famous of Italian composers, writing in the 19th century.

The music: Dramatic and expressive with memorable melodies.

The big hit: The Brindisi, a drinking song to start any party.

The setting: The salons of Paris in the mid 19th-century. This production updates the action to an indistinct period in the second half of the 20th century.

The history: La Traviata was a disaster at its premiere — nobody believed the middle-aged, overweight soprano could possibly be a society darling dying of consumption.

A quirky fact to impress your date: In Pretty Woman, Edward takes Vivian to see La Traviata.