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OWR brings ‘A Taste of Traviata’

Opera Western Reserve Production Director Scott Skiba is a movie buff, and he put that knowledge to use to create “A Taste of Traviata.”

The online presentation includes highlights from Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” (sung in the original Italian with English super titles) as well as behind-the-scenes extras and other educational materials. It premieres at 7 p.m. Friday.

Skiba said the term “highlights” undersells what they’ve created.

“It’s billed as a taste, but we basically just cut out the pages of chorus,” he said. “You’re getting 90 minutes of opera.”

And it’s an opera unbound from the space limitations of the Stambaugh Auditorium stage. The entire majestic auditorium and its exterior becomes the set for the tragic love story of a dying courtesan who finds true love, but circumstance keeps them apart.

“In some ways, this is the most lavish ‘La Traviata’ set I will ever direct on,” Skiba said. “I can’t imagine having a $30 million set with real stone and marble stairs, an honest-to-goodness ballroom, a real garden with a 15-foot fountain.”

Skiba realized last spring that the odds of doing a traditional production were slim, so he started thinking of ways he could make it work. One of the big obstacles was telling this great love story between Violetta and Alfredo with singers who need to maintain proper social distance from each other.

The solution was casting a real-life couple in the roles, tenor Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo and soprano Karen Barraza as Violetta. Skiba has known Whitney for years and directed him in productions of “La Boheme” and “Romeo and Juliet,” and he had met Barraza through him.

“It’s essentially a chamber opera with three main characters,” Skiba said. “I know a soprano and tenor who can sing these roles. She’s beautiful. He’s handsome. They’ll be great on screen.”

The third main character is Alfredo’s father, who conspires to keep them apart. Warren native Brian Keith Johnson, a frequent Opera Western Reserve performer, will play that role, and the cast also includes Sierra McCorvey as Anina and Jason Budd as the Doctor.

Some of the initial rehearsals were held outdoors with the actors social distancing. The singers wore masks when they weren’t being filmed. Skiba and guest music director Dean Buck scaled back the accompanying orchestra to a string quintet and keyboard to avoid having brass and woodwind instruments. And Skiba relied on some editing and camera tricks to keep all of his actors except for Whitney and Barraza from interacting too closely.

The production was recorded in October with Buck working with the singers and recording their vocals on the Stambaugh stage and then Skiba working with the performers and a crew to capture the performances on digital video. Some of the scenes were shot as many as a dozen times from different angles for Skiba to assemble.

Skiba didn’t find it difficult to transition from directing for the stage.

“I think my normal tendency is to direct cinematically,” he said. “My frequent collaborators love teasing me, because we’re all friends, ‘It’s all so cinematic. You need someone to give you millions of dollars so you can bring what you conceive to the stage.'”

Skiba, who became production director after OWR founder David Vosburgh retired at the end of 2019, is hopeful the company will be able to stage its 2021 opera more traditionally, but he believes the adjustments made out of necessity this year could be incorporated into future programming.

“I want to give a huge shout out to everyone who made this possible,” he said. “The Opera Western Reserve staff and the Stambaugh staff, it was really awesome to see them rise to the challenge and be creative … With creativity and ingenuity, art can find new ways.”

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