BLOOMINGTON — The stone floors of Ewing Manor were covered in delicate rose petals, played host to a masquerade ball, and were home to a pair of French lovers this week while a local opera company spent 10 days filming its first movie.
Tracy Koch, artistic director of Bloomington-based MIOpera, tried her hand at film directing and pulled Bloomington’s history into “La traviata,” a French story penned by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.
“I love stories about very strong, empowered women, and I love opera that teaches us something about ourselves and about our place in the world and where we’re at,” she said.
“La traviata” tells the story of Violetta Valery, but for this film, soprano Madison King played the role as Violetta Valery Ewing, pulling in the history of the manor and its patroness, Hazle Buck Ewing.
“Her whole life she was a lover of music and particularly opera,” said Toni Tucker, director of the Ewing Cultural Center. “So when they built this house, it was built acoustically for singers, and she would have choirs come in and line the stairway and sing to her guests as their entertainment.”
Koch said she was inspired by Ewing and channels her on the hard days of filming. They’ve added certain elements to the film that play homage to Ewing, like incorporating a harpist and using the settings and furniture in the house.
“Anything that ties us to the history of the house, the history of the woman,” Koch said. “Because it’s not just about the house, it’s about the history of the woman who lived in it and what she gave to the community.”
MIOpera’s new home will be at HCC’s auditorium after having a season of shows canceled last year.
“People are just getting back in their groove, back into performance, singing, trying to find a new normal, and opera movies might become the new normal if this pandemic continues,” Koch said.
Taking opera from the stage to the screen has been a new experience and a new challenge for Koch and her husband John, who is general director of their company, MIOpera.
“There’s something about live stage performance that a movie just doesn’t capture. Hearing the voices in the theater live resonating off your body and feeling that visceral reaction to the voice — it’s lost a little bit in translation of the movie,” Tracy Koch said. “But I think that we’re able to capture that in this situation, I really do. Making it more modern and accessible to people, you know.”
A dream sequence, complete with rose petals cascading from above, gave King and her co-lead Carl Rosenthal the opportunity to dress in historical and elaborate costumes, but the majority of the film was brought to modern day.
Rosenthal, who plays Alfredo Germont, said performing for a camera instead of an audience has given him the chance to focus on a different side of acting.
“On the operatic stage, bigger is better — it has to be,” he said. “You have to play to the last row, but here, at least as an actor, I’m exploring some more subtle movements and facial expressions that wouldn’t read on the stage but will definitely read in this movie.”
Ewing Manor brings its own life and energy to the film, Koch and the actors said.
“It’s amazing. It’s like taking what you would envision on a stage, but making it a lot more real,” King said. “You can just feel the energy from the house and I think that takes a little bit of the place of the audience, too. Because we usually get a lot of energy from the audience watching, but here we’re getting a lot of the energy just from being on a very specific place.”
“Feeling the history, Hazle’s presence,” Rosenthal added.
To fully embrace the Bloomington setting, they also filmed on location at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery this week when Alfredo visits Violetta’s gravesite.
Local talents also made the film work behind the scenes. Donald Wiggins of UpLift Productions ran the camera; and Trish Nesby and Angelia Nott of Arrive Men’s Salon did hair and makeup for the actors.
The film adaptation will be released Oct. 1 when the Ewing Cultural Center will host an outdoor showing behind the manor. Tickets will be available starting Sept. 1. The rain date for the show will be Oct. 2.
“So not only do you get to see the movie and hear the music and see the story, you get to sit and look at the house where it happened,” Koch said. “Talk about immersion, an immersion of art and culture.”
After the first showing, "La traviata" will play in local movie theaters before it is available on the MIOpera YouTube channel.
Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.