As a theatrical piece, "La Traviata" has many of the same elements that draw people to movies - a scandalous heroine who goes against convention, lavish costumes and sets, and a pair of lovers who are separated by untimely death just as they realize the depth of their feelings.

No wonder it's one of the world's most popular operas.Added to all this is a wealth of memorable and touching music by Giuseppe Verdi, a master at engaging emotion through melody.

Bring your hanky for Utah Opera's new production of this classic, which begins its run on Saturday, May 16.

The story centers around Violetta Valery, a courtesan in the glittering world of Parisian nobility, and Alfredo Germont, who offers her the only sincere love she has ever known.

When Alfredo's father convinces Violetta to sacrifice her love to avoid bringing scandal upon his family, a tragic journey is set into motion.

The title role of Violetta will be sung by Sally Wolf, in her Utah Opera debut. Wolf's humorous and easygoing personal demeanor belies the international acclaim she has received in such daunting roles as Queen of the Night in Mozart's "Magic Flute," which she has performed more than 120 times in such venues as the MET, Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival.

Wolf confided in an interview that she grew up with no exposure to opera whatsoever, though she was fond of singing in church and school. When she was told at a college vocal audition that she should study to be a professional singer, she replied, "You mean like in nightclubs?"

After overcoming a mental stereotype that opera singers were "those women with horns on their helmets who sing on the Ed Sullivan Show," she came to love opera.

"The part of Violetta is wonderful to sing because it runs the gamut of human emotions," said Wolf. "It's very demanding to be onstage and singing in almost every scene, but the music is gorgeous. Verdi writes beautiful death scenes for his heroines. I love the high, floating lines he wrote for Violetta; and also for Gilda, in `Rigoletto.' "

Violetta's lover Alfredo Germont, is sung by tenor Jianyi Zhang, who won hearts in Utah for his 1995 portrayal of Rodolfo in "La Boheme." He recently performed "Faust" at the MET.

The tenor's own life story is almost dramatic enough to form the plot of an opera. He grew up in Shanghai during the period when both Chinese and Western art forms were suppressed in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

When restrictions were relaxed during the 1980s, he was able to study Western music at the Shanghai Conservatory but had no exposure to opera until he came to New York in 1986 to study at the Julliard School. At that time he had to learn English for survival, and Italian, French and German for opera. Zhang feels that the human emotions expressed in opera come across in any language.

"It's not difficult to understand because the passion is there in the music," he explained. Zhang likes the intimate size of the Capitol Theatre and feels that it allows him to use a more natural acting style - "like real life."

Among the delights of this production are the elegant 1890s-era costumes, which are all new, and were created in Utah Opera Company's costume shop.

The opera is usually set in the 1850s, but stage director Sandra Bernhard chose to move the time period up for two reasons. The practical reason is that crowds of women gowned in the huge hoop skirts of the 1850s can't be easily accommodated on the relatively small stage of the hall. The second is that Bernhard loves the elegant silhouette of the clothing of the "Gilded Age."

Costume designer Susan Memmott Allred of the UOC staff said that every woman in the cast had two gowns made for her. "I usually shop for fabrics in Los Angeles, but this time I found the shop in Chula Vista, California, where the fabrics for the costumes in the movie `Titanic' were purchased. Needless to say, they had many elegant fabrics."

Baritone Victor Ledbetter cuts a suave figure as Giorgio Germont, the interfering father of Alfredo. Shawn Roy will portray Dr. Grenvil, and other roles are filled by Utah Opera's studio artists.

Presiding at the podium will be Cal Stewart Kellogg. Members of Ballet West will portray entertainers during the party scene. The Utah Opera Chorus is being prepared by Douglas Kenney-Frost. Lighting designer is Nicholas Cavallaro, Cynthia McCourt is wig and makeup designer.