Operas are often based on classical myths and legends.
But Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata owes its existence to a real-life Parisian street-ragamuffin and courtesan, and the talent of Alexandre Dumas, son of the man who wrote The Three Musketeers.
The girl was Alphonsine Rose Plessis. She was born in 1824 at the village of Nonant, near Bayeaux in Normandy. At the age of 13, she ran away from home. She arrived in Paris, penniless, and found temporary work in a dress shop.
As recorded in the art of the day, the young woman was extremely attractive, with a petite figure and an charming smile. Over time, she had become aware that prominent men were willing to give her money in exchange for her company in private settings. And faced with starvation due to the lack of money, she turned to prostitution.
Now a famous courtesan, she learned to read and write, and to stay abreast of world events so as to be able to speak on these topics with her wealthy clients and at social functions. By the time she was 18, Rose had climbed high on the social ladder. She also added the faux noble “Du” to her last name, and was now known as Marie Duplessis. The name change was done so that her family couldn’t trace her.
In addition to being a popular prostitute, Marie was also the hostess of a salon-a gathering of politicians, writers and artists for dialogue and socialization. She rode in the Bois de Boulogne and attended several opera performances, and also had her portrait painted by Édouard Viénot.
Alexandre Dumas, the french author and playwright, first saw Marie stepping out of a carriage in the Place de la Bourse. It is said that her beauty captivated him, and when he saw her for the second time, ina box at the Theatre du Variétés, he immediately arranged an introduction.
The meeting started a strange romance which survived her marriage to another man and lasted until she died. Marie, who was racked by chronic tuberculosis, told Dumas, “You will have a sorry mistress, a woman who is nervous, ill, sad and gay with a gaiety sadder than grief, a woman who spits blood and spends 100,000 francs a year. All the young lovers I have had have very soon left me.”
But the young Dumas, still enchanted by her beauty, ignored her warnings.
As her illness grew worse, Dumas bankrupted himself to pay for the doctors. Even when she had married Vicompte de Perregaux and had several lovers, Dumas remained faithful to Marie. But none of it would make a difference, as she succumbed to her disease. Marie Duplessis died on February 3, 1846, at the age of 23.
She was covered with camellias, her favorite flowers, and her coffin was interred in Montmartre Cemetery, and was attended by hundreds of people.
Dumas began writing the La Dame aux Caméllias soon after Marie’s death. It appeared within a year of her death. In the book, Dumas became “Armand Duval” and Duplessis “Marguerite Gautier”.
Set in mid-19th century France, the novel tells the tragic love story between fictional characters Marguerite Gautier, a demimondaine or courtesan suffering from consumption, and Armand Duval, a young bourgeois. Marguerite is nicknamed la dame aux camélias (French for ‘the lady of the camellias’) because she wears a red camellia when she’s menstruating and unavailable for making love and a white camelia when she is available to her lovers.
Dumas rewrote the novel later as a play, which in 1853, was the inspiration for Giuseppe Verdi’s famous opera, La Traviata, perhaps giving Marie a musical immortality that she would have considered deserving.