When soprano Janinah Burnett takes the stage with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra this weekend, she will sing the role of Violetta, a part she first performed five years ago. But it has taken those five years for her to really develop this leading role in La Traviata - one of opera's most famous works.
"When I first learned it, it was about getting the notes," the 28-year-old Burnett said. "And then as I grew into it ... I just got to know her character a little bit more and within myself tried to go on this journey with her. I searched my own life and my own heart for experiences that could help me understand the journey of this character."
Another soloist in the upcoming concert, baritone Gerald Dolter, has plenty of experience with his role. Over the past 25 years, he has given roughly 200 performances as the father Germont in La Traviata. But it was raising his own two children that brought him the most perspective on his role.
"I play a better Germont now because I'm a father," he said. "I've seen my kids grow up. You know what your own experiences are, but to watch your kids go through it, too - that's hard."
With his children now grown, the 51-year-old said the work continues to take on new meaning for him.
This weekend's performances of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata are concert versions rather than full productions. They mark the final concerts in this season's Masterworks Series, and the final performances led by Donald Schleicher, the symphony's conductor and music director for the past eight years.
Performances are 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at the Adler Theatre, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 1, at Augustana College's Centennial Hall.
Along with Burnett and Dolter, the performances feature tenor Min Jin as Alfredo and Ron May, the president of Opera Quad Cities, as the narrator. The work will be sung in Italian, with May explaining the scenes.
Set in Paris, La Traviata is the story of a courtesan, Violetta, who falls in love for the first time. She is forced to give up Alfredo - the man she loves - for the sake of his family, and she dies of consumption.
The work is based on Alexander Dumas' 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias, but the story is probably most familiar to audiences as the basis of Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge.
"It's so ironic because she finds love for the very first time in her life, and she's going to die," Dolter said. "It's a story that causes people to love it. But the melodies that go with it - they just tug at your heartstrings."
Dolter has performed across the United States and Europe, but primarily in Germany as the leading baritone with Germany's Bremen Opera from 1985 to 1991. He is currently on the voice faculty at the Texas Tech School of Music and the director of the music-theatre program. The Dubuque native also focuses on opera-education programs for children and developed, among other initiatives, the young-artist program with the Cedar Rapids Opera Company.
Burnett graduated from the Eastman School of Music and lists Mimi in La Bohème, Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen, and Bess in Porgy & Bess in her repertoire, along with Violetta. One of her most notable roles was Mimi in Luhrmann's adaptation of La Bohème, where she gave 82 consecutive sold-out performances and won the prestigious Ovation award in 2005.
By performing the same roles in many different productions, and always with different musicians, Burnett continues to develop the characters.
"Each time you get to see different views," Burnett said. "It's great to collaborate with [the musicians] and experience their musical talents and their musical abilities. It's a growing experience each time."
Although this weekend's performances are concert versions, there are still challenges for the soloists.
"It's harder [when you don't have a set] because you have to imagine all of it," Dolter said. "You've got to put it all in your voice. Because it's [a] concert [version], the music takes priority."
Burnett also said a concert version can be difficult, but it does have advantages.
"I love being on-stage with the orchestra," she said. "You feel them. Oftentimes they're in the pit and all the action is on stage, but this time I feel directly connected. I feel like an instrument, in a sense."
Schleicher will host a discussion of the upcoming concert at "Inside the Music" on March 28 at 5:30 p.m. at The Outing Club in Davenport, as well as an hour before each concert at "Concert Conversations."
In conjunction with the concerts, a painting by local artist Carolyn Phillips inspired by La Traviata will be auctioned, with proceeds benefiting the Quad City Symphony Orchestra Association.
For tickets or more information, visit (http://www.qcsymphony.com).