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Cinematic Connections, in Verdi's 'La Traviata'

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Once, not too long ago, the The New York Times ran a commentary under the provocative headline, "How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera." The piece cited two films in particular as guilty of the crime, including one that highlights the opera featured here, Verdi's La Traviata.

The movies in question are the 1987 Oscar-winner Moonstruck and the 1990 hit Pretty Woman, neither of which is really about opera. In fact, each of the films embraces a well-known pop tune as a sort of theme song: In Moonstruck it's Dean Martin with "That's Amore," while Pretty Woman shares its title, and some screen time, with the iconic hit by Roy Orbison.

Yet both films also have key scenes that feature famous operas. In Moonstruck, Cher and Nicholas Cage spend an evening at the Metropolitan seeing Puccini's La Boheme. And in Pretty Woman Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to San Francisco for La Traviata.

But in both cases, the Times articles says, opera is presented in a way that does it a disservice, by portraying it as an art form that's "lush, static and stale"; as something to do for a "solemn date night"; and as a way of "leaving everyday life behind."

And those are fair points. Both Boheme and are well-worn operas, and in the wrong hands might easily reinforce operatic stereotypes. And both Moonstruck and Pretty Woman do present a night at the opera -- at least in part -- as little more than a stuck-up, swanky way to see and be seen. Richard and Julia even fly to the opera in a private jet!

Still, maybe there's something more going on -- both in the movies, and at the opera. Loretta, Cher's character in Moonstruck, agonizes over a volatile relationship -- and whether its rewards could ever be worth its headaches. In La Boheme, Loretta watches a young woman facing similar decisions -- and observing the consequences that unfold in the opera might well affect the movie character's own, "real life" choices, later on.

Something similar happens in Pretty Woman, with its obvious parallels between Vivian, the Julia Roberts character, and Violetta, in La Traviata. They both have the same occupation, for one thing. But, more importantly, they both face vexing decisions about how best to survive their own inclinations -- or better, how they can best live up to them. Vivian decides not to follow Violetta's tragic example.

Two characters. Two movies. And two operas -- each of which gives us a chance to forget reality, and escape our lives, if only for a little while. But those operas, and their creators, also accomplish something more elusive -- and more valuable. They provide genuine insights, helping us to deal with our lives when the stage curtain falls, the theater goes dark -- and the curtain on reality goes back up again.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's La Traviata from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, a theater with a continuous, operatic history dating back to the mid-1700s. The stars are soprano Maria Grazia Schiavo as Violetta, tenor Ismael Jordi as Alfredo and Giovanni Meoni as Giorgio Germont, one of Verdi's greatest baritone roles. The production is led by the legendary Italian conductor Nello Santi, still going strong at age 84.