by MARY STOVER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & on't know opera? Think of it this way: La Traviata is like Pretty Woman without the happy ending -- or like Moulin Rouge if Nicole Kidman could have hit the really, really high musical notes. If you've seen those movies, the plot of Giuseppe Verdi's opera will feel familiar: prostitute finds love, stifles her passion to save the social standing of her lover's family, and then is given love again, only to meet a dismal end (unless her name is Julia Roberts).

While this weekend's performances at North Idaho College will be set in the late 18th century, Opera Plus! founder and director Todd Robinson says that La Traviata (roughly, "The Fallen One") "could be set in 2008 and no one would know the difference -- it's that human, with that realistic quality."

In Verdi's day, the Church didn't want Italians celebrating the life of a prostitute; they couldn't get past the fact of her social role. But the tale of Violetta isn't just a story about a hooker; it's about a woman who tries to make her life better -- and fails.

Robinson wants all his audience members, newbies and opera buffs alike, to enjoy and understand the production, because it appeals to all of us at a very basic human level. "This is not a celebratory piece about a courtesan," he says, "but what we see and what makes us so human is that she wants to change her life and she finds true love. So she starts to do everything in a good way and wants to live a good life, but she keeps being reminded of who she was, and she ends up dying because of the lifestyle she led. We've all been in those places and been haunted by things in her past. There's a real human quality to her that makes her feel real to us. That's the genius of this character -- not to mention that it's an opera by Verdi and it's full of beautiful music."

Because it's about unselfish love, fierce loyalty and self-discovery, La Traviata is frequently performed. But Robinson has taken a unique approach in this Opera Plus! rendition, saying that he has "presented some things that haven't been explored -- none that I have seen, anyway -- that go a little bit past what the libretto tells us about Violetta's life." Christina Major has played the role in five previous productions, but even she, says Robinson, is "surprised by the direction and is learning more about the character. We're going into Violetta's character more deeply."

It's necessary preparation because "opera has evolved in the last 25 years," he continues. "Actors are having a lot more demanded of them in the sense of acting. It's always been, 'Opera is so stagnant because they just stand there and sing,' but lately directors and audiences have been demanding more, and now they're getting it -- more action with the characters, more emotion and so on." Again, there will be facets of the Opera Plus! production that will appeal both to first-time attendees and to experienced opera lovers.

And if, in preparing the title role, Robinson and Major are doing their homework, maybe you should do some, too. Here's Robinson's advice: "I always say this: Spend five or 10 minutes on the Internet, do a little homework before you come. Read the synopsis. Opera is grand in scope -- things happen quickly and on a really big level." A few minutes of preview can make "a huge difference," he says. "We do project English translations so the audience isn't completely lost because it's in another language."

So if you're not quite clear on the lyrics to "Parigi, o cara" or how Baron Douphol fits into the action, you could orient yourself right now with a quick trip to Just don't expect a happy ending. This isn't a Julia Roberts movie.

La Traviata will be performed Friday, Sept. 26, at 7:30 pm and on Sunday, Sept. 28, at 2 pm at NIC's Boswell Hall. Tickets: $29-$35; $18, students. Visit or call (800) 4-CDA-TIX or (208) 769-7780.

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Mon., Feb. 6, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and Mon., Feb. 13, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
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