Portrait of a Lady

Look into her eyes and what do you see? Fearlessness? Fragility? Resilience? Mistrust?

This season’s portrait of La Traviata by illustrator and portrait painter Tim O’Brien invites us to consider the storm and passion of Violetta’s life.

O’Brien’s artwork has appeared on book covers, postage stamps and in numerous magazine publications, including Time, GQ, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic. He has created several illustrations for the theatre, but this is his first ever for an opera company. 

Cincinnati Opera, long familiar with O’Brien’s work, selected him, “because we knew he could provide us with something beautiful and classic,” said Managing Director Christopher Milligan.

Cincinnati Opera asked O’Brien to render the character of Violetta, the lovely and intriguing courtesan, rather than the actual singer, French soprano Norah Amsellem, who will perform the role in Verdi’s beloved opera in June. Cincinnati Opera Marketing Manager Amy Hildebrand briefed O’Brien on the plot, character, costuming, and staging. While creating preliminary sketches, O’Brien, having never seen or heard the opera, listened to the famous 1979 Decca recording of the opera featuring Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. 

O’Brien said he was familiar with previously produced posters and visuals of La Traviata, but he “tried to block those images out of my head” as he imagined his own Violetta. The result, painted in oil on panel, is a stunning portrait of a young beauty, bejeweled and dressed in a sumptuous gown of darkening violet. One hand, placed delicately near her throat, suggests uncertainty, perhaps danger, while the other hand rests confidently on her hip.

Looking directly into our eyes, Violetta floats amidst an expanding storm cloud while standing anchored by the image of a societal fortress that overlays her gown. Her ethnicity could be French or Brazilian or perhaps neither. O’Brien agreed that it is “hopefully a bit undetermined.” 

Violetta’s eyes tell a story that is unfolding, unresolved. We look back at her, and we are drawn in by Tim O’Brien’s skillful creation, yearning to listen to her story, eager to hear her song.

To view more of Tim O’Brien’s work, visit www.obrienillustration.com.

-Cindy Starr

Learn more about this summer's season opening-production of La Traviata