For Verdi, the years 1851 to 1853 were filled with operatic activity. First, he had agreed with the librettist Salvadore Cammarano on a subject for what would become Il trovatore, but work on this opera could not proceed while the composer was writing Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice in March 1851. In addition, personal affairs in his home town limited his activities that spring, but after Rigoletto's success in Venice, an additional commission was offered by Brenna, the secretary of La Fenice. After Verdi's return from Paris a contract was signed in May 1852, with performances scheduled for March 1853, although no subject was chosen at that time.
Verdi sees The Lady of the Camellias play
Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi had visited Paris from late 1851 and into March 1852. In February the couple attended a performance of Alexander Dumas fils's The Lady of the Camellias. As a result of this, Verdi biographer Mary Jane Phillips-Matz reports, the composer immediately began to compose music for what would later become La traviata. However, Julian Budden notes that Verdi had probably read the Dumas novel some time before, and, after seeing the play and returning to Italy, "he was already setting up an ideal operatic cast for it in his mind," shown by his dealings with La Fenice. On their return to Italy, the composer had immediately set to work on Trovatore for the January 1853 premiere in Rome, but at the same time seemed to have ideas for the music for Traviata in his head.
Composing for Venice
Francesco Maria Piave, librettist of the opera
Francesco Maria Piave was to be engaged to write the new libretto and the two men tried to come up with a suitable subject, but the composer complained that his librettist "had not yet offered him an 'original' or 'provocative' idea". Writing to Piave, he added that "I don't want any of those everyday subjects that one can find by the hundreds." But at the same time, the composer expressed concern about censorship in Venice, something with which he was very familiar after his dealings with the censors concerning Rigoletto. As the months dragged on into October, it was agreed that Piave would come to Sant'Agata and work with the composer. One subject was chosen, Piave set to work, and then Verdi threw in another idea, which may have been La traviata. However, within a short time, a synopsis was dispatched to Venice under the title of Amore e morte (Love and Death). However, as Budden reveals, Verdi writes to his friend De Sanctis telling him that "for Venice I'm doing La Dame aux camélias which will probably be called La traviata. A subject for our own age." Although still bogged down at Sant'Agata, Piave was sanguine: "Everything will turn out fine, and we'll have a new masterpiece from this true wizard of modern harmonies".
When back at Sant'Agata in late January 1853 Verdi was reminded that his contract called for him to be in Venice within a week or two and for the premiere to be held on the "first Saturday in March 1853". However, it soon became clear that a modern-dress staging of the new opera was impossible—the requirement was that it should be set in the 17th century "in the era of Richelieu"—and reports from the opening of the season confirmed the limitations of the chosen soprano, the 38-year-old Fanny Salvini-Donatelli for taking the role of Violetta. Verdi was distraught, for he held on to the notion that the opera could be staged in modern dress—as Stiffelio had been done—Piave was sent back to Sant'Agata to no avail: he could not persuade the composer to back down on his insistence that another soprano be secured, yet the 15 January deadline for securing one had come and gone. Verdi was filled with premonitions of disaster upon his arrival in Venice on 21 February for rehearsals and he made his unhappiness clear to the singers.