WA Opera's artistic director Joseph Colaneri still remembers the first time he conducted Verdi's best-loved opera, La Traviata.
"It was back in the 1980s at the New York City Opera," Colaneri tells me during a break in rehearsals for WA Opera's forthcoming production.
"(Former soprano) Beverley Sills was general manager and she said 'I think it's time we saw you conduct Traviata'."
Given Sills' legendary portrayal of La Traviata's consumptive courtesan Violetta and her guaranteed presence at Colaneri's performance, the young conductor was understandably nervous. He needn't have been.
"I'll never forget that afterwards she came to congratulate me and said she thought it was a wonderful performance," Colaneri says, smiling at the recollection. "She said 'I would have been very comfortable singing Violetta with you'."
It was one of the greatest compliments the New York-based Colaneri would receive in a career that has seen him conduct nearly 40 operas at the Metropolitan Opera.
More importantly, it shaped an attitude towards younger musicians, and indeed young people in general, which to this day remains central to his approach to music-making.
"When you're starting out that kind of support is everything," Colaneri says. "Otherwise you can't go on. Your confidence has to be built. When I'm working with younger singers or conductors or pianists, I try to do the same thing. Yes, you have to push everybody a little bit, but you don't want to destroy them. It takes a certain belief in yourself to be able to get up and do what you do."
A prime example of this attitude is his work with Perth soprano Katja Webb, who is singing her first Violetta.
"We work a lot together, very, very intensely," Colaneri says. "This is a great occasion. Singing your first Violetta is like having your first child. It ranks up there with getting married. So we're working through it very, very carefully. We have talked about every nuance, every word. We're examining every bit of it."
Not only that: Colaneri is taking the same pains with even the smallest role in the opera, which was first performed in 1853 and which tells the story of Violetta's doomed love affair with Alfredo Germont (sung here by Rosario La Spina) and her self-sacrifice for the sake of his family.
"We have to get them to the highest standard we can. So for each singer, what's the best we can have them sing? Diction, understanding of the text and style - how do you interpret the part, what's the tempo like, what's the most effective phrasing? That's always been my approach."
As for audiences, both young and old, first-timers and seasoned La Trav fans, Colaneri promises a rare treat.
"This is a chance for a whole generation who hasn't seen (La Traviata) to come and see it in a beautiful, warm iconic (Opera Australia) production," he says. He is "taking great pains with things that are not often done" such as reinstating the stage dance band that plays in the wings on two occasions.
"We are performing the score exactly as Verdi wrote it. Everybody knows the big tunes - the brindisi, Sempre Libera and so on - but we've got to find a way to play it as though the ink is still wet."
So should somebody who has heard La Traviata umpteen times come along? Colaneri is unequivocal.
"The answer is yes. Because we're going to do our best to give you a performance that sounds like you're going to hear it fresh, you're going to hear it in a new way."
For those who haven't heard it before?
"Come and see this piece that everybody knows and everybody's talking about," he says. "Sometimes opera companies find themselves apologising for doing a traditional production. We don't. We owe it to this next generation to present it in its pure form, as Verdi envisioned it."WA Opera performs La Traviata April 9, 11, 13, 16 (matinee only) , 18, 20 at His Majesty’s Theatre. Book at Ticketek.