Violetta, the title character of La Traviata, may be the single most beloved heroine in all of opera. On New Year’s Eve, soprano Marina Poplavskaya sings Verdi’s “fallen woman” for the first time at the Met, in director Willy Decker’s widely praised new production—a major hit when it premiered at the Salzburg Festival. The director and his star spoke about how love, death, and the passing of time shape Violetta’s story.

Marina, you’re returning to Violetta after making your role debut in this production in Amsterdam two years ago. Is it a dream role for you?
Marina Poplavskaya It’s the dream role for any soprano. It has this sensibility that you only get when you’re really loved, and yet you’re a free spirit. There’s a great energy. There’s a great exploring time for me, also. I’m slightly nervous, but that’s because I love to participate in every tiny part of a production. I love to create—just squeezing myself into the role or into a particular character is not enough for me. I have to be in it, to feel the reality of it. I have to fantasize about the characters. It’s like chess, the different combinations you play, and then you can build something.

La Traviata has been staged in hundreds of different ways. Mr. Decker, what is your approach as the director?
Willy Decker When I start working on a piece, I try to dig deep into its center. That means stripping away every aspect that is not needed, to find the basic form, which then leads to creating a space to set the piece in. And I think with Traviata, this basic form, in an extremely focused way, is a circle. For example, it starts with the end—the music of Violetta’s death scene also begins the piece. It comes back to where it started. A circle is also the basic form of the waltz, which as a musical theme goes through the piece, almost like an obsession. So this idea became the foundation, and you’ll find it in many aspects of the production. The room is a circle. The basic form of human life is a circle. And this piece goes about human life in a very essential way.

Few title characters dominate an opera as completely as Violetta in La Traviata. How do you see her—and why do audiences love her so much?
WD It is obvious that Verdi is extremely on her side. He follows her like an obsessed lover through this piece, and he is master enough to transfer this feeling to the audience. Violetta is an outlaw, an outcast. Society shuts her out because she has broken a law, which is to sell her body—to put a price on her love. So they look down on her as a person without feeling, without love. But the further you look into the piece, you see that it’s the other way around: she is the only person in the opera who truly loves, selflessly.

Tell us about your collaboration so far.
WD In Amsterdam we had the second version of this production after Salzburg, and Marina gave it a very personal color. She has an enormous purity and this incredible power. And, maybe the most important, there’s a certain secret about her. You see her powerful surface, which she presents to society, but with a deep sadness and fragility behind it, which has an enormous depth. That combination is very much Marina Poplavskaya.
MP I really put my soul into it. We were discovering and rediscovering what I had inside of me. Willy never demands from an artist to be what he sees in the role. He is getting out of me, as a human being, some qualities that I might have forgotten about or that I don’t see. And then I look back and I’m surprised, “Was that me? Really?” [laughs] He’s great at getting it to that level without pushing you.

The idea of time passing plays an important role in this production.
WD What interests me in La Traviata, and I think what interested Verdi most, is that Violetta knows that she is dying, from the very first moment. And here comes the aspect of time. She knows that her days are numbered, and her reaction is to fling herself into life, into this circle movement, this endless waltz, and these nights that she doesn’t sleep. But throughout every bit of music that she has, and that the piece has, you have this tick, tock, tick, tock of time running out. And so you’ll see, in the production, one of the very few elements that are prominent is the clock.
MP Violetta gives everything for the moment. But love has no timing, no beginning and no end. At the end of “Sempre libera,” when Alfredo is coming, I want to let him in, because I feel something. It’s like you’ve found your soul mate. This production really helped me understand the words and the scenes—not literally, but what is underneath. And it’s a great development, for my own character, for my life, and for my understanding.

You’ve found a very interesting scenic solution for the presence of death throughout the story...
WD Violetta’s relation to death is ambivalent. On one side, it is horror. It is fear. It is the anxiety of dying. But on the other side, there is a certain longing for death also in her, to get it over with and to get out of her hated love-life situation. So to bring out this ambivalence, to make it visual, I needed a counterpart for her. And that became the character of Dr. Grenvil, who doubles as a personification of death. Whenever she sees him, Violetta is pushed back toward the fact that she’s dying. So again, on the one side, she hates it when he comes. On the other, she knows he’s a friend. And death, for her, is both. So with Grenvil actually being there almost throughout the whole piece, we have the presence of death to be felt, physically, onstage, all the time. And as we see in the end, she kind of goes back to Grenvil at the very last moment, as if to put herself into death’s arms.

It’s a very powerful image. Marina, do you have a favorite moment in the opera?
MP The duet with Germont [in the second act] is where she makes the supreme sacrifice for real love. She gives her life, which is all she has. That’s a great moment. —Edited by Philipp Brieler

This interview was first published online in November 2010 and in the Met's Playbill in December 2010.

Also read: New Woman: In Willy Decker's new production of La Traviata, Violetta is a strong, selfless, and undeniably modern character.