Decker’s Traviata

1arely has an operatic production caused as much furor as the 2005 Salzburg Festival production of La Traviata. Desperate opera aficionados wrote blank checks in hopes of securing black-market tickets to the opening performance. Applied to a piece with a history of lavish costumes and sets, the minimalist aesthetic and conceptual staging added new intellectual and emotional depth to the opera. The production’s major symbols are concerned with Violetta’s illness and death. Violetta’s interactions with symbolic set pieces and characters reflect existentialist attitudes towards dying. Specifically, Violetta’s struggle with death can be interpreted through Heidegger’s concept of authenticity and inauthenticity in being-toward-death.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger, famous for his contributions to existentialism and phenomenology
German philosopher Martin Heidegger, famous for his contributions to existentialism and phenomenology

It is unsurprising that a romantic opera would lend itself well to an existentialist interpretation. Romanticism and existentialism share many themes: a struggle between fate and freedom, an emphasis on subjectivity, and an obsession with death. However, many existentialists (including Heidegger) maintain that subjectivity means events must be experienced alone. Although the outside world shapes a person’s life and although a person’s choices affect others, the actual living of that life and making of those choices rest solely with the individual. Romanticism provides love as a meaningful connection that overcomes the aloneness of experience, even in death.

Because of this difference, an existentialist staging supports the romanticism of the opera only until the moment of Violetta’s death. A Heideggerian interpretation of La Traviata highlights Violetta’s inauthentic orientation towards death throughout the opera. However, Alfredo experiences Violetta’s death genuinely, challenging Heidegger’s claim that death is nonrelational. In this, the romantic text of the opera is at odds with the existentialist production. 

Summary of La Traviata and the Salzburg production

La Traviata tells the story of the courtesan Violetta. Despite being ill with tuberculosis, Violetta wastes her life in a whirl of parties and rich lovers. At one party, a friend introduces her to Alfredo, a young man who has been enamored of her for the past year. His protestations of love inspire the same sentiment in her, and she abandons her life of gaiety to move to the country with him. Her health improves but without a rich lover to support her, she secretly sells her belongings to fund their life together. Alfredo discovers this and goes to Paris to prevent it. While Alfredo is gone, his father arrives and explains that for the good of Alfredo and Alfredo’s sister (whose fiancé will break the engagement if Alfredo continues to live with a courtesan), Violetta must leave Alfredo. Heartbroken, she consents and returns to her former life. Alfredo, ignorant of her motives, is furious and follows her to a party where he insults her and challenges her new lover to a duel. Violetta’s illness worsens and she is near death when she receives a letter from Alfredo’s father indicating that he has told Alfredo of her sacrifice. Alfredo returns to Violetta to ask her pardon and resume their life together, but it is too late: She dies.

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The opera is traditionally staged in the mid-1800s, when it was written and when the book on which it is based is set. The Salzburg production moves the action to today. Violetta appears on the stark set in a short, red dress, and during the party is surrounded by a throng of black-suited men (the chorus). Throughout the production, she is pursued by Death (the singer who plays the doctor in the third act). A giant clock represents her mortality. The rest of the set is minimal: Although couches adorn the stage for the country-house scene in the second act, there is not even a bed onstage during Violetta’s death.

Heideggerian being-toward-death

In Being and Time, Heidegger defines death as “the ownmost nonrelational, certain, and, as such, not to be bypassed possibility of Da-sein” (326). These terms require clarification. Da-sein, literally “there-to-be,” refers to the type of being that projects itself into and takes interest in its own future—namely, the type of being exemplified by humans. For Da-sein, death is “not to be bypassed” in that it is the possibility of no further possibilities. Da-sein’s projection of itself into the future cannot go farther than death (at least, not with any basis in experience—beyond that, Da-sein can imagine but not predict). Death is “certain” because, while no one knows when death will occur for him, death will occur for every Da-sein. Death is “nonrelational” because each Da-sein must claim its individual death—death cannot be experienced through another. Finally, death is “ownmost” in that it separates the Da-sein who dies from everyone else.

To Heidegger, realizing and accepting these characteristics of death enables Da-sein to meaningfully exercise choice in life: “Becoming free for one’s own death in anticipation frees one from one’s lostness in chance possibilities urging themselves upon us, so that the factical possibilities lying before the possibility not-to-be-bypassed can first be authentically understood and chosen” (332). Heidegger considers an attitude that enables this freedom the authentic mode of being-toward-death.

Heidegger also describes numerous inauthentic ways of being-toward-death—ways people trick themselves to disguise the imminence of the death of Da-sein. One method is “idle talk,” in which “death is understood as an indeterminate something which first has to show up from somewhere, but which right now is not yet objectively present for oneself, and is thus no threat” (320). This might consist of an emphatic rejection of one’s own mortality, but can also be subtler. Even the phrase “I will die” can package death as part of a life narrative rather than an immediate presence, and thus distance the speaker from his death. Another common tactic of society is polite tranquilization of the ill—insisting, no matter the medical prognosis, that the dying will get better. “This tranquilization is not only for the ‘dying person,’ but just as much for ‘those who are comforting him’” (321), because avoiding the necessity of the death of another Da-sein allows one to evade the necessity of one’s own death as well. These elusions are flight from the knowledge of the reality of death, but Da-sein cannot actually flee death. Thus, this “everyday, entangled evasion of death is an inauthentic being toward it” (327).

Fleeing death through debauchery

Violetta’s sickness gives her a unique perspective on death. More than most, she recognizes that death is an immediate possibility for her—her illness could take her life at any moment, without warning. This does not prevent her from attempting to evade death. In fact, it seems to encourage her. In the first act of the opera, we encounter Violetta in the midst of a crowd of admirers, dancing and drinking as she laughingly accepts their praises. Both Death (portrayed by a singer) and a clock serve as reminders that her debauched life is only hastening her demise, but she ignores them (confirming, precisely by fleeing from her knowledge, that she knows death approaches). In throwing herself into society, Violetta reassures herself by submitting to public opinion. The crowd treats her as though she is well and likely to live a long life; with the help of wine, she believes that they are right. This is the tranquilization of the dying as described by Heidegger: To evade their own mortality, those with the dying convince her that she will escape death.

Violetta (Anna Netrebko) lives a life of wild partying and debauchery at the start of the opera
Violetta lives a life of wild partying and debauchery at the start of the opera

Debauchery also allows Violetta an escape from angst. (Angst, which Heidegger considers a sign of authenticity, is general anxiousness about something not fully present—in this case, the completion of Da-sein in death. Fear, a reaction to an objectively present, specific object or event, often disguises angst. Fear is still uncomfortable, but less so than angst because it can be directed at a defined target.) Heidegger explains that society, discomforted by the prospect of having to consider death, which inspires angst, interprets angst as fear and condemns it: “[society] is careful to distort this Angst into the fear of a future event. Angst, made ambiguous as fear, is, moreover, taken as a weakness which no self-assured Da-sein is permitted to know” (321). Violetta therefore avoids it. At the end of act one, Violetta sings “Povera donna, sola, abbandonata in questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi. Che spero or più? Che far degg’io? Gioire! Di voluttà nei vortici perire.” (“Poor woman, alone and abandoned in this busy desert they call Paris. What more can I hope for? What should I do? Enjoy myself! Perish in the whirlwinds of pleasure.”) As she sings the last two phrases, she fills her glass and lifts it in a toast to Death, who watches from above. With this defiant gesture, she demonstrates that she is unafraid of death. Ironically, this demonstration only proves that she is not authentically being-toward-death.

The clock

Violetta collapses on the ever-present clock, observed by Death
Violetta collapses on the ever-present clock, observed by Death

The clock is nearly always present in the Salzburg Traviata. Its hands sometimes move quickly and sometimes slowly, it is sometimes covered and sometimes horizontal, but it always draws Violetta’s gaze. At the end of the party scene in the first act, Death speeds the movement of the clock’s hands. Violetta runs to the clock and grabs the hands in an attempt to slow them. This scene comes between Alfredo’s protest “Ah, in cotal guisa v’ucciderete. Aver v’è d’uopo cura dell’esser vostro” (“Ah, you kill yourself like this. You need someone to take care of you”) and Violetta’s aria “Ah, fors’è lui” (“Perhaps he is the one”). Violetta’s desperate struggle with the clock at this moment indicates that maybe even her nascent love for Alfredo is the response to her anxiety about (and desire to stall) her approaching death.

In the second act, Violetta’s love has blossomed and she has moved to the country with Alfredo. Even in their idyllic retreat, the clock remains, amidst couches draped in floral fabric. The clock, too, has been covered. But it is still there. Violetta and Alfredo can delude themselves into believing her new lifestyle will prevent her death, but the continued presence of the clock proves otherwise. Happiness and love cannot overcome mortality, and pretending they can is simply a new mode of inauthenticity. Heidegger writes that Da-sein “veils this [death] from itself” and “does not dare to become transparent to itself” (325). Violetta applies this literally—fleeing from death by hiding the clock that reminds her of it behind an opaque cloth veil.

On the surface, the clock is problematic as a Heideggerian symbol. It seems to indicate a fixed amount of time remaining in Violetta’s life, reinforcing the popular conception that death happens “later” and masking “what is peculiar to the certainty of death, that it is possible in every moment” (325–326). But this clock is not a countdown. There is no mark to indicate the fatal moment, no sign that Violetta will die when the hands reach a certain point. Indeed, the clock does not even measure time—its pace varies with Violetta’s actions. Thus, the clock serves its existential purpose as a reminder of death’s imminence rather than a reassurance of its postponement. And in case the reminder is insufficient, Death himself pursues Violetta.

Pursued by death

Death in the Salzburg Traviata is not a stereotypically ominous figure. There is no skeleton head, no flowing robe, no scythe. This Death is an older man, simply dressed in a black suit. And while he sometimes inspires fear and despair, he just as often supports Violetta. During the prelude, she falls fainting into his arms; at one point in the first act, he gently takes her wine glass from her. We get the sense that Violetta and Death are old acquaintances.

Violetta leans on Death
Violetta leans on Death

Here we see the chance for Violetta to approach her own death authentically. Heidegger claims that “inauthenticity has possible authenticity as its basis” (327), and it is when she is too exhausted to evade death (and thus maintain inauthenticity) that Violetta allows herself moments of authenticity. (It may normally be easier to give in to society and flee death than to face it, but even flight is tiring and cannot be constantly maintained. Authenticity and inauthenticity are never complete; one eventually becomes impossible to maintain and the subject slips back to the other.) In these authentic spells, Violetta anticipates Death: She sees him approach without making any attempt to flee and in some scenes she even physically reaches out to him. In turn, Death supports and enables her. Heidegger writes that in authentic being-toward-death “anticipation discloses to existence that its extreme inmost possibility lies in giving itself up and thus shatters all one’s clinging to whatever existence one has reached” (332). This is especially true for Violetta. In all of her interactions with Death, she has an air of surrender. He catches her as she falls; she gives up her wine glass at his insistence. But her approaching death also allows her to give up her past (the “existence she has reached” as a courtesan) and reinvent herself as Alfredo’s lover. By authentically facing the death that pursues her, Violetta gains freedom.

Violetta’s sacrifice

Violetta’s moments of authenticity are rare and brief; her usual attitude towards death is that of flight. Violetta’s evasion of death is particularly artful in her conversation with Alfredo’s father. She has been carefully eluding death for the first half of the opera; here she appears to bring it to her defense: “Non sapete che colpita d’altro morbo è la mia vita? Che già presso il fin ne vedo? Ch’io mi separi d’Alfredo? Ah, il suplizio è si spietato che morir preferirò” (“Don’t you know that my life is threatened by an illness? That I see my end will come soon? I must leave Alfredo? The request is too cruel; I would prefer death”). When she finally agrees to the sacrifice, Violetta asks Alfredo’s father to tell his daughter what Violetta has done for her, ending the story with “e che morrà” (“and she will die”). The third-person reference to herself hints that Violetta is actually evading death, even as she declares it will come soon. She has constructed a narrative surrounding her death and she now relates it. Although she knows that she is the subject of the narrative, she hides that knowledge from herself. As Heidegger says, “‘Dying’ is leveled down to an event which does concern Da-sein, but which belongs to no one in particular” (320). Violetta substitutes her narrative self (“no one in particular”) for her real self, and thus avoids feeling the knowledge of death.

Death as the doctor

Casting a doctor as Death in any piece is an obvious irony, and perhaps a commentary on the medical profession. But in the context of La Traviata, it also highlights Violetta’s mixed relationship with death. It reinforces the concept that Death supports her. She appreciates Death, referring to the doctor as “il vero amico” (“the true friend”) and thanking him for his goodness in thinking of her. But Death—as the doctor—also encourages her in her inauthenticity. As he ends his visit to her, he sings “Corragio adunque. La convalescenza non è lontana” (“Courage. You will get better soon”). This is precisely the tranquilization Heidegger complains of: The doctor tries “to convince the ‘dying person’ that he will escape death and soon return again to the tranquil everydayness of his world” (320). Violetta is not deceived and responds with a sad smile, “Oh, la bugia pietosa ai medici è concessa” (“Oh, doctors are allowed these comforting lies”). With her death so soon, Violetta has a moment of authenticity. But Death’s lie reminds us that death is a fact, rather than a power. Death has no interest in whether we approach him authentically; he is not fighting for our souls. The choice of authenticity is subjective; Violetta makes it freely, without the help of (in fact, in spite of) the doctor (Death).


A Heideggerian interpretation (indeed, an existentialist staging) of La Traviata breaks down in the final scene. Heidegger claims, “We do not experience the dying of others in a genuine sense; we are at best just ‘there’ too” (303). To him, death is “ownmost” and “nonrelational”; it is therefore isolating and a uniquely individual experience. This is not the case in La Traviata: Alfredo genuinely experiences Violetta’s death.

Even when he flees from it, Alfredo views Violetta’s death as his own. His pained expression and hand-wringing as he sings “Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo; la vita uniti trascorreremo” (“Dearest, we will leave Paris; we will spend our lives together”) belies his words. However, the tranquilization in this case is not a self-centered evasion of his own mortality. It is Violetta’s death he fears, and he only considers his death as a consequence of hers. His reassurance is for himself as much as for her, but it relates solely to her mortality.

Alfredo’s words indicate that he experiences Violetta’s death as his own: “Sì presto, ah no, dividerti morte non può da me. Ah, vivi, o un solo feretro m’accoglierà con te” (“No, death cannot take you from me so soon. Live, or a single tomb will receive us both”). When Violetta falls dead, Alfredo also collapses—of the four spectators to Violetta’s death, the other three sit like statues while Alfredo crumbles. Although he does not (like some romantic heroes) die in the same instant as his lover, they nonetheless experience her death together.

Here, the staging that highlights the existentialist themes detracts from the text. In many productions, Violetta dies in Alfredo’s arms. This is an appropriately romantic ending, emphasizing their shared experience. In this production, however, the four spectators remain at the edges of the stage, while Violetta dies alone in the center. Thus, the staging indicates that her death is indeed an “ownmost” and “nonrelational” occurrence, but in doing so it contradicts the romanticism of the piece.

Violetta dies alone
Violetta dies alone

Existentialism and romanticism share many themes, and therefore each works well to highlight aspects of the other. However, they vary on an essential point. To existentialists, isolation is inevitable, especially in death. To romantics, even death can be a shared experience through love. The similarities between the two philosophies allow the Salzburg Traviata to effectively emphasize Violetta’s evasion of death. However, the existentialist staging weakens the ending of an essentially romantic opera.

[toggle title=”Sources”]
  • Page numbers for Heidegger’s “Being and Time” come from the anthology Basic Writings of Existentialism, compiled by Gordon Marino and published by The Modern Library.
  • Discussion of staging, blocking and acting in Decker’s Traviata refer to the DVD released in 2006 featuring Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón.
  • Translations of the libretto of La Traviata are my own.