Red-carpet glamour at the opera

Highs and lows: Australian Lorina Gore plays Violetta Valery, the ‘‘fallen woman’’ of New Zealand Opera’s La Traviata.
Highs and lows: Australian Lorina Gore plays Violetta Valery, the ‘‘fallen woman’’ of New Zealand Opera’s La Traviata.

When people have a night at the opera, their attention falls on the singers and accompanying orchestra.

While most will be aware of the director and conductor, who they often won't see until the curtain falls, few would think of the rest of the team behind the production.

One of those invisible roles is that of assistant director. New Zealand Opera's production of La Traviata, opening in Wellington on Friday, has Jacqueline Coats.

Coats says she often has to explain her job to people outside opera.

"It's quite a specific opera role. You don't really get it much in theatre, but in opera we definitely work in a hierarchy. You have got the director and the assistant under that and working down from there."

Most, but not all, opera directors have some musical knowledge. La Traviata director Kate Cherry does work off the score rather relying on others.

But while there may be some leeway for the director, Coats says musical knowledge is essential for her role.

"As an assistant you do really need to read music because you do so much interaction with stage management and opera singers.

"You do have choreographers - and I'm not one of those people - who work as assistant directors as well. You [also] get assistants who have also been stage managers, who swap between the two because there is a very close bond between assistant directors and stage managers."

Coats has been an assistant director for several NZ Opera productions, as well as directing operas and other productions for other companies, and spearheading her own shows for more than a decade.

She was one of the first graduates of a masters degree in theatre arts in directing run by Victoria University and Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School in Wellington in 2002.

But Coats was already drawn to opera due to a love of singing. She comes from a family that embraced theatre and singing including her father Ray and brother Stuart Coats - and it's her brother, who continues to sing and perform, who she credits with getting her hooked on opera.

"He was doing a singing degree at Victoria and got into the chorus of Wellington City Opera at the time. He used to get me tickets so I came along to the opera and started watching and getting really excited at the scale of it," she says.

Coats also sings. She's a member of Wellington choir Nota Bene, which marks its 10th anniversary this year. "That's what I do for my relaxation," she says. "I'm an alto and I'm in no way an opera singer."

For La Traviata - Coats' first production of the Verdi classic - her depth of musical knowledge and experience has been essential.

It has included working with a 44-strong choir. While the core cast and some crew are the same as for La Traviata's Auckland season last month, the choir is specifically sourced from Wellington. New Zealand Opera is one of the few opera companies in the world which maintains choirs in different cities - it also has a choir in Christchurch - to use in touring shows.

Coats says having a new choir for the Wellington season, as well as a new orchestra with Orchestra Wellington, re-energises the production. "It's got that feeling of difference and freshness to it."

La Traviata's assistant director has also come to further appreciate Verdi's three-act opera, first staged in 1853.

"[It] comes down to the quality of the music as well. With a fantastic composer like Verdi there is so much in that music. He is a very psychological writer. There's a lot of depth of character that comes out of the music. I get something new out of it all the time."

THE opera is a co-production with the State Opera of South Australia and Opera Queensland.

Australian Lorina Gore plays Violetta Valery, the "fallen woman" - or "la traviata" - of the title, and fellow Australian, tenor Samuel Sakker, plays nobleman Alfredo Germont.

"It's the first time they've played these roles and it's wonderful to have the exploration of the parts. It's very exciting in the room . . . developing that.

"The characters in La Traviata are real people. That's what I always come back to. They are not all kings and queens. They are people we can identify with and I think that is why people love the opera so much. They can look at these people and understand why they are doing things."

An added bonus is the design, sets and costumes. It's not set in a specific time period, but is still easy for audiences to connect with.

"It needs to be placed where you write a letter to break up with your lover rather than emailing them. It's got that kind of timelessness to it.

"But it also has that elegance [of] Hollywood, that red carpet glamour."

- La Traviata, St James Theatre, Wellington, Friday, 7.30pm; Sunday, 2.30pm, July 15, 6pm, July 17 and 19, 7.30pm.