John Hoomes, director of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the opening work in Opera New Jersey’s 2008 summer season, aims to make the piece as three-dimensional as possible. The opera, sung in Italian with English surtitles, opens on Friday, July 11, in McCarter’s intimate Berlind Theater. Performances continue through Saturday, July 26. Fernando Raucci conducts. Principal singers are soprano Elizabeth Caballero (Violetta), tenor Michael Fabiano (Alfredo Germont), and baritone William Andrew Stuckey (Giorgio Germont). Also being performed in repertory are “The Merry Widow” and “La Cenerentola (Cinderella).”
Among the most-performed operas in the United States, “La Traviata” focuses on Violetta, a tubercular courtesan, who has no expectation of finding true love. Surprising herself, she feels fulfilled when Alfredo Germont falls in love with her. The couple lives happily together. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, calls on Violetta when Alfredo is absent and persuades her to give up her beloved in order to maintain the Germont family’s reputation. She pretends to Alfredo that she no longer loves him. Just before Violetta dies, Alfredo finds her again.
“Unlike many operas with elongated emotions or a stylized approach, ‘Traviata’ is very real, and heartbreaking,” Hoomes says in a telephone interview from the Princeton apartment where he is staying. “I’m trying to make the piece very moving, and leave out the emotional buffers. I want it to be very affecting without dipping into sentimentality.”
Hoomes is enthusiastic about the casting for “Traviata.” “Michael Fabiano is singing Alfredo,” he says, “and the role sounds as if it was written for him. He and Elizabeth Caballero [Violetta] look wonderful together.”
“I love opera,” Hoomes says. “As a director you have to find the emotional core. You should not be afraid to make the audience feel the emotions. It’s OK even to make them cry. If you avoid those things, you’re selling opera short.”
Hoomes’ strategy for turning out a production that heightens the ability of the audience to empathize consists of making sure that all performers have a thorough understanding of the people they portray. “We do a lot of talking as we put a piece together,” he says, “not only about what’s happening at the moment but about the back story. The singers and I discuss the real motivation of the characters. Human nature is complex. People are always saying one thing and meaning another. Sometimes they try to hide their emotions. Verdi was able to capture these phenomena. Especially the way the music works, it pushes the drama to another level.”
“I like to discuss such questions with one character at a time. Emotion and motivation are very private things. Others don’t necessarily know all of another person’s agenda. Sometimes it’s better theater if every character on stage doesn’t know what everyone else is thinking. I sometimes tell performers, ‘We want to see a certain thing in the piece but we’re not going to tell everybody on stage what it is.’”
Insisting that motivations must originate in the text, Hoomes meticulously investigates a script to harvest the reasons for a character’s behavior. “Elizabeth Caballero and I have talked privately about Violetta’s character,” he says. “At the opening of the opera, she has given up about finding love and satisfaction in her life. After she and Alfredo Germont fall in love, she begins to see the possibility, not only of true love, but also of redemption by God. When Giorgio Germont, Alfred’s father, asks her to give up his son, he says that their union has not been ordained by God. It’s actually in the script. That remark hooks into Violetta’s motivation, and the situation becomes particularly painful and intense for her.”
Hoomes estimates that he has directed “La Traviata” five times previously. “The more you have the chance to get your hands on a work, the more you can flesh it out,” he says. “When you work with a piece repeatedly, you get a better feel for it than you had the first time around.
“When I first worked on the piece in college when I was 20, I didn’t understand the emotions of sacrifice. I was drawn to more swashbuckling pieces like Tosca. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to think of ‘Traviata’ as one of the best pieces Verdi wrote, because it’s very real.”
Hoomes was born near Mobile, Alabama, in 1956, an only child. Traces of his geographical origin linger in his speech. His father worked in a furniture store; his mother was a librarian. The family was not musical with the exception of his grandfather, a violinist, who died before Hoomes was born. The grandfather, who came to the United States in 1902, played in Germany before 1900, and accompanied Ernestine Schumann-Heink. “Maybe I got some of his genes,” Hoomes says.
“The only musical outlet where I grew up was the church,” says Hoomes. “I started working in churches before I went to college. When they asked me to direct ‘Elmer Gantry’ [the Robert Aldridge opera based on the Sinclair Lewis novel about an enterprising evangelist], I felt like I was going back home.
“I played the piano badly and loved symphonic music. At Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, I had to choose between sacred and secular music. I heard my first opera in Birmingham,” Hoomes says. It was Robert Ward’s ‘The Crucible,’ based on the Arthur Miller play. It was not like anything I had ever seen before. Nobody spoke, everybody sang. It had a tremendous effect on me.
“I studied voice because I wanted to understand the mechanics of how it worked,” Hoomes continues. “My background is in a combination of theater and classical music. In college I decided to read every play I could get my hands on. I read David Mamet, classical Greek plays, Sam Shepard, Eugene O’Neill, to develop my knowledge of working theater. It was mostly self-education.
“I was doing what a teacher in graduate school would recommend. He said, ‘Whatever discipline you’re going to work in, expose yourself to everything in theater, music, and art. Go to museums to see what the contemporary scene looked like. Go to ballet and movies. The more you see and assimilate, the more you’ll be able to do.’”
Hoomes entered a program at the University of Indiana in Bloomington that awarded a Master of Science degree in operatic stage directing. “The program accepted four people a year. I was lucky to get in,” he says. “Now I’m doing what I was trained to do.” As a freelance stage director, he has directed more than 85 productions of opera and music theater. In New Jersey he directed Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” for Opera Festival of New Jersey in 2001 and Robert Aldridge’s “Elmer Gantry” at Montclair University.
“I’m usually hired for certain genres of opera,” Hoomes says, “the violent, sexy stuff — Verdi and Puccini. I’m hired for the heavier things and for new works. I love Mozart. Gilbert and Sullivan is not my thing. I like intense, dramatic pieces. I like comedy but don’t get a chance to do it that much. About the only comedy I’ve done is ‘Fledermaus.’”
After earning his degree in Bloomington, Hoomes worked for the Kentucky Opera for six years as resident stage director and dramaturge. Since 1995 he has been general artistic director of the Nashville Opera Association.
Nashville Opera hired Hoomes and his wife, Carol Penterman, together. “We were engaged at the time,” Hoomes says. Penterman is executive director of the company. “It’s fantastic to work with your wife. In the arts you rarely see your spouse because you’re travelling so much. She’s from a military family. Her father retired as a colonel after World War II, and later became a general. He worked with MASH hospitals, and was one of the creators of the 911 system. She has that kind of leadership.” The couple lives in Nashville with their 19-year-old daughter, Hilary.
“When we first came, the budget was $350,000.” Hoomes says. “Next year it will be $3.1 million. We worked very hard to grow the company. To accomplish that, I stayed off the road and did stage direction in Nashville. The company wouldn’t have grown if I hadn’t stayed home to work on developing the organization.”
Hoomes finds a parallel between Nashville Opera, in its present form since 1997, and Opera New Jersey, founded in 2002 by Scott and Lisa Altman, and now in its fourth season. Like Nashville, with its husband-and-wife team in leadership positions, Opera New Jersey is headed by general artistic director Scott Altman and executive director Lisa Altman. ONJ started with an annual budget of $17,000 and relied on volunteer staff for two years, determined to wed financial responsibility to artistic excellence. In fiscal 2007 the company’s budget was $1.1 million and it employed five fulltime employees. “I feel a kinship for Lisa and Scott Altman,” says Hoomes. “The more you produce good projects, the more the company will grow.”
“La Traviata,” Friday, July 11, through Saturday, July 26, Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Verdi’s opera. $59 to $65. www.opera-nj.org or 609-258-2787.
“The Merry Widow,” Friday, July 18, through Saturday, July 26. Lehar’s opera.
“La Cenerentola,” Saturday, July 12, through Sunday, July 27.
Summer Season Scenes Concerts, “Tutti e Due,” choruses and duets, Monday, July 21, and “Off the Beaten Path,” great opera rarities, Tuesday, July 22. $15.