Putting the burlesque into La Traviata

The grand salons of 19th century Paris become the risque but chic club scene of London today. ABIGAIL SALTMARSH asks Kit Hesketh-Harvey about his new production of La Traviata.

With his own stage performances, his appearances on radio and television panel shows and his prolific writing, it is hard to imagine how Norfolk resident Kit Hesketh-Harvey manages to juggle his busy life.

But, he says, his recent collaborations with The Merry Opera Company slot neatly into his working year and have been 'hugely enjoyable'.

'This kind of work is not a million miles away from cabaret or screenplay translation and it is something I love doing,' he says. 'It is great working on something with a very small company, and with people who are open to new ideas.

'Also, because much of it happens for me in January and February, when there aren't many arts festivals, it fits in very well.'

La Traviata arrives at Norwich Playhouse tomorrow and follows last year's critically acclaimed Troy Boy, which, based on La Belle Helene, was also translated and adapted by Kit for The Merry Opera Company.

In this version of La Traviata, Violetta transmutes from a courtesan to a cabaret star and is pursued by brash, young city banking types.

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Her lover, Alfredo, is Muslim so his cavorting with a strip club singer in a basque brings shame to his family and threatens his sister's planned marriage.

'It is also set in 2012 in trendy East London rather than a world of countesses and enormous balls, all of which is slightly out of date these days,' Kit explains.

'Instead, it is set in this burlesque club and Violetta is a dancer – a kind of Dita Von Teese – rather than a courtesan. She doesn't have consumption but she has a brain tumour.'

'The idea is that we try to recreate the atmosphere of a club in the theatre and the performers all work off the atmosphere of the audience.'

A total of just 12 cast members appear in the opera – all soloists who perform one night in their main role and the following night as ensemble.

The full score has been arranged for an onstage band of five; piano (and sometimes accordion), cello (on occasion with a bass), violin, viola and clarinet.

Despite the modern-day differences, and being adapted for a small stage, the story remains close to the traditional version in essence.

'Every note is from Verdi's score and the translation is pretty close to the original,' he adds.

Kit, who is married to the actress Catherine (Katie) Rabett, and has a home in south-west Norfolk, has carried out a number of translations for operatic companies, including the Royal Opera House, ENO and Opera North.

He was educated as a senior chorister at Canterbury Cathedral and, while a choral scholar at Cambridge, became a member of the university's famous Footlights company.

For the past 30 years, he has also made a name for himself as half of the double act Kit and the Widow. He met his partner Richard Sisson at Cambridge and, after going their separate ways for a while, they formed a duo and began working as a cabaret act.

Performing humorous songs in the vein of Flanders and Swann, they have played in the West End and Broadway, as well as at the Edinburgh Fringe on numerous occasions. They have also had their own series on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, appeared on Channel 4 and toured internationally.

Kit's work has always been very varied. Winning the 1988 Vivian Ellis Award for music theatre, he went on to study under Stephen Sondheim and was Grammy-nominated for his translation of The Bartered Bride at the Royal Opera House.

He also wrote the script for Merchant Ivory's 1987 film Maurice, based on the novel by EM Forster, and starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves.

He starred in the 1996 production of Salad Days at the Vaudeville Theatre, and co-devised and appeared in the original production of the Stephen Sondheim review, Putting It Together. He has also made appearances on Radio 4 shows such as Just a Minute and Quote Unquote.

'I am busy but it does all seem to fit in,' he says. 'This year I even managed to do panto. I was Dick Fleshcreep, at Guildford, which was hugely enjoyable even though it completely torpedoed my Christmas.'

Sadly, Kit won't be making it to the Norwich production of La Traviata but will be sending his father, who lives in Swaffham, to see how it goes.

'It should be great fun,' he adds. 'La Traviata is up there with all the great operas and this will be a really great night out for people who enjoy opera but don't want to pay Covent Garden prices.

'I think it will also appeal to younger people who have not seen a lot of it before. It is important we maintain interest in opera among the younger generations – and I think this is a refreshing, new way of enjoying it.'

? La Traviata, Norwich Playhouse, March 31, �15 (�12.50), 01603 598598, www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk