Brandie Inez Sutton’s first audition for her college choir was unsuccessful. To be fair to the soprano, her alma mater is Oakwood University – then known as Oakwood College – an Alabama school known for music.
Among the private, historically Black Seventh-Day Adventist university’s alums are rock ’n’ roll progenitor Little Richard, R&B singer Brian McKnight and noted acapella group Committed. And the Aeolians, the school’s premiere touring ensemble that Sutton didn’t initially get into, regularly travels nationally and internationally to promote the university.
After taking vocal lessons, Sutton made the choir; in 2020, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. And this weekend, she’ll star in Virginia Opera’s “La Traviata” as Violetta, a challenging role that is famously said to require three different voice types to tackle: one rapidly moving coloratura, one dramatic and powerful, and one that’s lyrical and sweet.
“Vocally, it can be very taxing,” says Sutton. “My voice is a lighter voice, but it also has a lot of different colors in it, so that helps.”
Taking place in Paris at the turn of the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece concerns Violetta, a courtesan who has just recovered from an illness at the start of the opera. While hosting a lavish party in her salon, she is introduced to Alfredo, a man who has long admired her from afar. They fall for each other, but misunderstandings, differences in social standing and Violetta’s lingering illness all lead to a tragic conclusion.
Adam Turner, Virginia Opera’s artistic director and the show’s conductor, says there’s a reason why “La Traviata” is one of the most famous and often performed operas in the repertoire. From “the quality of the music and the story” to stagings that usually include “lavish sets, luxurious costumes, big chorus [and a] big orchestra,” Turner says this opera still speaks to audiences 170 years since it first debuted.
“It’s a crowd pleaser, but it’s also the opera that makes you fall in love with opera,” says Turner, noting that this is the eighth time Virginia Opera has mounted “La Traviata” in its 48-year history. “We always get the seven-year itch. This is an eight-year itch, so it’s overdue.”
Turner says the dramatics of the opera’s plot are matched by its score.
“It’s traditional bel canto: glorious melodies, really acrobatic singing,” he says. “It’s really very interesting coloratura and high notes for days. You have high-Cs for the tenor and high-E flat for the soprano. These are incredible feats for any singer, so that’s really thrilling to watch. It’s like watching a figure skating event to see if they nail the triple axel.”
He calls playing Violetta the “Mount Everest of roles” for its difficulty.
“It’s a tour-de-force for any person,” says Turner, adding that Sutton has the skill and charisma to bring a “high octane performance” to Virginia’s stages: “It’s been incredible to watch her grow into the role and completely inhabit Violetta.”
Audiences will also hear tenor Won Whi Choi play Alfredo; he previously sang the part at the Met in 2020.
“It’s a role that’s well established in his voice,” Turner says. “He’s another one that’s a thrill to watch. One of the most exciting tenors that we’ve had in a long time.”
Rounding out the main trio of performers is baritone Grant Youngblood as Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont. Turner says Youngblood has grown into Verdi’s baritone repertoire; The New York Times wrote that Youngblood “has a robust sound with ringing top notes.”
“He brings wisdom and grace and dignity to the role, such integrity, because he knows this part inside out,” Turner says.
With the Richmond Symphony in the pit and the Virginia Opera’s largest chorus since before the pandemic, Turner says “La Traviata” marks their return to “truly grand opera.”
“It feels really wonderful to have all of these voices on the stage and this large orchestra and these luxurious costumes and sets,” Turner says. “It just feels like opera is back. This would be the one you wouldn’t want to miss.”
For her part, director Tara Faircloth doesn’t mince words when it comes to “La Traviata’s” appeal.
“‘Traviata’ is the most beautiful, heartbreaking opera in the entire repertory,” Faircloth says. “It’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the most often performed operas, period.”
She notes that when her father, a schoolteacher, first saw a previous production that she was involved in, he was completely taken; whenever she tells him she’s working on a new opera production, he always asks if it’s “La Traviata.”
“It really struck him,” she says. “It has a home for anyone who has ears to hear.”
As evidence of “La Traviata’s” staying power, Sutton name checks popular films like “Pretty Woman” and “Moulin Rouge.”
“They were inspired by the story of ‘La Traviata,’” she says. “If you love those movies, you must come see the original.”
Virginia Opera’s “La Traviata” plays March 17 and 19 at the Dominion Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 600 E. Grace St., 23219. For more information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.