Which makes for a lovely image of the ScotOp bus trundling from Aboyne to Lerwick, Stornoway to Newton Stewart with full orchestra and chorus in tow, but the reality is a wee bit more compact: eight singers and a piano.
Plenty of operas are expressly designed for petite forces. Benjamin Britten coined the term "chamber opera" in the 1940s and wrote several brilliant examples, and more new stage works commissioned during the past few decades have been small-scale, for funding as much as for artistic reasons. Indeed Scottish Opera premiered its own series of chamber operas just last month. But rather than taking one of these purpose-built numbers on the road, the company has opted for a reduced version of one of opera's biggest hitters. La Traviata is the story of a Parisian prostitute who falls for a client and succumbs to the risks; this is big tragedy, big romance, big tunes and a big soprano role written for the big stage.
Regardless, Annilese Miskimmon, former artistic director of Ireland's Opera Touring Company, newly appointed general manager of Danish National Opera and director of this touring production, says La Traviata is the perfect opera for an up-close-and-personal treatment. "When it was premiered [Venice, 1853] the disease that kills Violetta, tuberculosis, was rife. Most people in the audience would have known somebody who had died from it. Often contemporary productions in big opera houses lose that personal emotional impact, but when we perform it in small spaces, the intimacy of the tragedy will really work. Our audiences will be so physically close to the performers that they'll really feel Violetta's illness and her emotional conflicts."
Verdi based his opera on The Lady Of The Camellias, a play by Alexandre Dumas that controversially dramatised the seediest underbelly of Parisian haut-monde. Dumas's original heroine was a real-life prostitute who wore red camellias on the days of the month when she was not available for trade; in Violetta, Verdi and his librettist Piave create a heroine who straddles vice and virtue, whose moral compass is dangerously complicated.
Ultimately her pious self-sacrifice chimes well with romantic operatic forms of the day, but the blurry sexual politics and overt mirror-holding to a high-society audience made this a hugely daring depiction. Verdi intended the opera's premiere to be set up-to-date, but censors in Venice insisted on a historical distance of 200 years to soften the scandal.
Miskimmon has updated her production in the 1950s. "A time when Paris was full of artists and bohemianism, but when the structures of society were still very much enforced," she says. "Men were men, women were women, marriage was marriage. After the war there was a resurgence of couture and decadence that fits well with the fact that Violetta lives in a world where there's a lot of money flowing around. But things were just on the cusp. I found Fellini's La Dolce Vita really useful to my research: it's a fascinating look at the early 1960s and the aristocracy rotting from inside. I've gone into the seeds of that rot in the 1950s."
At the centre of the opera is the love story between Violetta and Alfredo: rich, handsome, wide-eyed and pitifully naive. "I've always had my suspicions about Alfredo," says Miskimmon. "He's a bit like Rudolfo in La Bohème: they're both very selfish men, and when the going gets tough they react in the worst possible way. Don't get me wrong; I have sympathy with him, too. I think he's never really been in love before. Neither has Violetta. But his lack of self-knowledge destroys them both."
Often the lovers are portrayed with an age difference (her older, him younger). "You can play it that way," says Miskimmon, "but for me it's less about age, more about emotional maturity. She's so much wiser in terms of what her life has been." Scottish Opera has cast four very young singers to alternate the roles: sopranos Elin Pritchard and Linda Richardson, tenors Jesús León and Robyn Lyn Evans.
Pritchard, who opens the run in Giffnock tomorrow, is a recent graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and about to start at the National Opera Studio in London. Violetta is a role usually reserved for sopranos of well-oiled voices and well-trod careers, but the bubbly Welsh soprano seems to be fast-streaming through usual casting etiquette – she's already sung Anne Trulove in Scottish Opera's mainstage production of The Rake's Progress earlier this year, standing in for Caroline Sampson.
"It was a shock when I first was offered Violetta," she says, looking more thrilled than shocked. "I'm so young to be singing the role. I thought I'd be tiptoeing around, doing the smaller soprano stuff first. But I've been very lucky so far. And now I'm singing one of the most amazing soprano roles in the repertoire. People talk about Violetta as three soprano voices. You need a really high coloratura with serious agility; you need big dramatic decibels; and you need beautiful pianissimo singing. But in this context I'm not so worried about the strain because we're using a piano accompaniment. I won't have to force my voice beyond its current size."
Pritchard says she doesn't want her portrayal to be too melodramatic – not "a typical dying heroine. I want my Violetta to be as realistic as someone can be while whacking out top E-flats at the ends of arias". And the intimacy of the production will help with that, she says.
"Singing isn't always a flattering art. My two nephews were watching me sing on Welsh TV last week and called up afterwards to say that my face when I'm singing is the funniest thing they've ever seen. In the majority of opera houses audiences can't see our expressions; here, because they will be so close to us, we have the opportunity to make our acting much more convincing. We can work in really small nuances that should bring the drama to life."
La Traviata opens at the Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, tomorrow, and tours until November 24 with an eight-venue tour in March. Visit www.scottishopera.org.uk.