Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Kelly and Jesus in a New Bohème: An Interview by Richard Dyer

In Puccini’s La Bohème, the poet Rodolfo meets the delightful seamstress Mimì on a freezing Christmas Eve in 1830, and it is love at first sight.

In 2003, a young tenor, Jesus Garcia, met with a young soprano, Kelly Kaduce, to rehearse La Bohème. Paradoxically they haven’t ever sung the opera together until now, a dozen years later. Boston Lyric Opera has engaged the charismatic pair to appear in a new production, now playing at the Shubert Theatre through October 11.

Back in 2003, Kaduce was not long out of her graduate program in Boston University’s Opera Institute; Garcia had completed his studies at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia—and he was rounding off his run on Broadway in one of the most famous and controversial contemporary productions of La Bohème.

In 1990, Baz Luhrmann, not yet a famed film director, had directed a low-budget production of La Bohème for Opera Australia with a young and appealing cast he trained to avoid every cliché of operatic acting; he was a bushy-haired 28-year-old at the time, not much older than the singers or the characters they portrayed. The production, set in 1957 (“bring your own leather jacket”), proved a tremendous hit, and two years later it was taped for television and consequently broadcast around the world. It was one of the first operatic productions to be released on DVD, where it became an immediate best-seller.

By 2002, Luhrmann, now with the clout of popular films like Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge behind him, decided to adapt his La Bohème for Broadway. It was no longer a low-budget affair, and Rodolfo and Mimì were triple-cast because no one could possibly sing those roles eight times a week. The show was nominated for seven Tony Awards and the entire cast(s) won a special ensemble Tony Award. This version ran for 224 performances, which may have been disappointing by Broadway standards; still, it had taken the Metropolitan Opera 25 years after its first Bohème to reach that total.

One of the rotating Broadway Rodolfos was Jesus Garcia, then in his mid-20s; all the singers from the alternating casts appear on the “original cast” CD, where Garcia sings Rodolfo in the fourth act. The singers received a lot of criticism because many of them were simply too young to be performing their roles on such a demanding schedule; the prognosis for continued vocal health was not good. Garcia says he dropped out of the production before it closed because after 45 or so performances, because his voice told him to. “The color of my voice then was right for the role and the show was miked which made it easier. There was also a reduced orchestra. But the emotions were so intense that they took their toll, and my voice was tired.” But as he was leaving, he did help coach Kaduce through the staging, as the soprano had been hired to sing Mimì for a run in Los Angeles after the show closed in New York.

Kaduce had already sung Mimì, and she has continued to sing it ever since the Los Angeles performances; Garcia has also sung his share of Rodolfos, more than 120 so far. In some respects both their careers were jump-started—or hurtled ahead—by Luhrmann’s production. They are two of the brighter stars to have emerged from Luhrmann’s Bohème—among the others are the soprano Ekaterina Solovyeva, now a leading artist at the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg, and the versatile American baritone Daniel Okulitch. Incidentally, the “swing” who sang in the chorus and was prepared to go on in most of the male roles was the tenor Joseph Kaiser, now a leading international artist, who will sing the title role in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Massenet’s Werther in March 2016. Garcia’s two colleagues as Rodolfo, on the other hand, have taken alternative routes—Alfie Boe is now a musical theater star, renowned for his appearances in "Les Miz" and David Miller is a member of the popera group Il Divo.

Since Luhrmann, however, the careers of Garcia and Kaduce have diverged—Garcia is currently more active in Europe than in America, and Kaduce has developed into a reigning diva of regional opera in this country, a true successor to the magnificent Sheri Greenawald from the generation before her. This Bohème marks Kaduce’s third engagement with Boston Lyric Opera, where she has previously appeared in the title roles of Massenet’s Thaïs and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Dyer, Kaduce, and Garcia (left to right) at the Boston Center for the Arts.
In a recent conversation before a rehearsal in the Boston Center for the Arts, Kaduce and Garcia sat at a long production table midway back in the auditorium—on the stage was a large raked platform, but there was no scenery on it yet; off to the side, a poster of Che Guevara stood on a stick in a large plastic barrel, ready to march again. The singers were dressed for work, Garcia in jeans and a t-shirt, Kaduce in a long blouse over stretch pants. They seemed happy to be reunited with each other and with La Bohème, and both were excited by director Rosetta Cucchi’s production concept: Rodolfo and Mimì meet on a freezing Christmas Eve as squatters during the student riots in Paris in 1968.

(Cucchi is an interesting figure who began her career as a concert pianist after studies with two great artists, Sergio Fiorentino and Jörg Demus. Then, a few years ago, she abandoned the keyboard for the clipboard and has since staged operatic productions in more than a dozen Italian cities as well as in Switzerland, Germany and Ireland; this production marks her American debut.)

Both the tenor and soprano have appeared in versions of La Bohème which have been set in various historical periods—the story of young lovers, idealistic and doomed, is universal. They say they sometimes enjoy transposing periods because it enables them to make a fresh start on familiar material, but they do not particularly enjoy the process when the director has “no focus” and they find themselves doing the same old thing, except with different costumes, shoes, and hair. On the other hand, they agree that Cucchi is exceptional. “Everything has been worked out in detail—nothing has been left unattended to or unexplained,” Kaduce says. “Rosetta has taken the text seriously, and everything in the production makes sense. There is no inn at the city gates in the third act for example, and both the words and the surtitles have been changed in a few places.”

Garcia grew up in League City, Texas, near Houston; his ancestry is Aztec, Mexican, Italian, French and Spanish. He is a very dashing young man who probably hasn’t gained an ounce since his Broadway days. He has been performing since he was a child in daycare. “I made my debut as Baby Bear in a little show about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I also put together a show about Amelia Bedelia, got my friends together, cast it, and directed it. I had a solo as Alfie the Elf, and sang in choirs as an alto until I was in sixth grade and became a soprano, but before long my voice changed, which was a good thing because I felt so much peer pressure to sing as a tenor. I would say that choirs in school and church were the reason I sang classically and took voice lessons. I was extremely offended by people who I thought didn't know how to sing, but when I started to take lessons my teacher said I didn't know how to sing! I did begin to learn—records of Luciano Pavarotti made me want to know how—and then I won a scholarship to attend the University of North Texas in Denton. I sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly in English there and spent summers at the Seagle Music Colony in the Adirondacks. Then I wound up at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and the rest is history.”

After Broadway's La Bohème, Garcia was a prize winner in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition and developed a good career on the American regional opera circuit as well as engagements in South America and Europe. But by 2010, Garcia decided to interrupt his operatic activities career to pursue an equally strong interest in songwriting and in popular music. “I did continue sing a few operatic engagements, but I had started writing poetry in 1999 and composing music in 2001. My creative juices were stirred up by working with Baz Luhrmann—rehearsing for a show on Broadway, and watching his creative process, learning to become an actor, creating commercials, storyboarding, and watching how everything come together. I wanted to become a creator but it just wasn’t possible to do that on a part-time basis any more than it was possible to relax the vigilance and discipline that being an opera singer requires. So finally I took three years off. By now I’ve written about 35 songs, including 10 for an album I call ‘Manifest Destiny.’ In the songs I address some of my personal battles, religion vs. spirituality, and confront such other issues as stereotypes and prejudices. So the songs for the album move from a dark place into a holy and enlightened one. I would describe my music as avant-garde soul/rock and pop, or modern alternative rock, and my major influences were probably Bjork and Radiohead. I’ve done a lot of work on writing and recording the arrangements and orchestrations I’ve made for the album, but haven’t done my own vocals yet—I use a completely different voice and technique for popular music, so now I won’t for a while, because I have come back to opera full-time. Through this process I developed a deep desire to sing in opera again. Because I had been absent from the American scene for a while, my agent convinced me it would be better to start all over again in Europe where there was the potential for full-time work.”

A year ago Garcia accepted an extended contract in Karlsruhe, Germany, where this season he sings four roles, including Rodolfo; he has also sung in other German cities, in Luxembourg, and in Finland, concentrating mostly on Italian bel canto roles and French operas. He seems poised for another career breakthrough, and already he is singing in America again. “I am performing roles that are appropriate for my voice, as it is now, and that primarily means bel canto. I have used this time in Europe to get back into the zone vocally, and I record and analyze every single one of my performances.”

Kaduce has had little trouble with finding full-time work here because she boasts such a winning combination of attributes and abilities—a versatile and attractive voice; secure technique and musicianship; acting chops; and personal glamor—she looks like a golden-age Hollywood star even in rehearsal clothes and without makeup.

She was born in Winnebago, Wisconsin, and sang her first solo in church at the age of four: the spiritual “This Little Light of Mine.” She continued to sing in church—her mother was the organist—and always had the support of her parents and teachers, all of whom believed she “had something.” She attended St. Olaf College, then came to Boston University, where she studied with Penelope Bitzas. In 1999 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council New England Regional Auditions. Always interested in musical theater, she appeared in shows in high school and later spent two summers with the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth where she appeared in Gilbert & Sullivan; Anything Goes (she learned to tap dance for this); Kiss Me, Kate; and Into the Woods. In addition to opera at BU she sang in Britten’s War Requiem in Symphony Hall and made early appearances with Opera Aperta (now Boston Midsummer Opera)—with them, she appeared in a program of staged scenes from Mozart (“Mozart in Love”) alongside the baritone Lee Gregory, who became her husband. They now have a four-year-old son, Colin, named after the eminent late stage director Colin Graham, who was a favorite colleague. As it happens, they now make their home in Houston, not far from where Jesus Garcia grew up.

(Asked about his private life, Garcia grins and says only, “I am in a relationship.”)

Kaduce considers her formal professional debut to be La Bohème with Opera Delaware in 2000. Since then she has appeared in a large number of leading roles in repertory operas—everything from Pamina in The Magic Flute and Gretel in Hansel and Gretel to Salome, from Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni to Madama Butterfly, from Violetta in La Traviata to Manon Lescaut and her next new role, Tosca. Her French roles include Micaëla in Carmen, Marguerite in Faust, and Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, in addition to Thaïs. Some of her roles she has sung both in English and in the original language, often Italian, and she considers this to have been an especially valuable experience. “When I sang Butterfly in English, I found myself acting more internally, and singing in my own language enabled to accentuate the words with more natural nuance, and with more feeling, and this was an experience I could then carry over into singing the role in Italian.” She sang at the late lamented New York City Opera, with the Minnesota Opera in her native state, and with a wide range of other American companies, establishing close ties both with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis Opera and the Santa Fe Opera; in one season she had more than 50 performances of 17 roles in 19 cities, one of which was in Australia!

Less predictable, perhaps, is the way she has become a go-to soprano for contemporary operas. She has sung in Nixon in China (John Adams), Jane Eyre (Michael Berkeley), Anna Karenina (David Carlson), Silent Night (Kevin Puts), Margaret Garner (Richard Danielpour), Tea (Tan Dun), The Shining (Paul Moravec), Madame Mao (Bright Sheng), The Passenger (Mieczyslaw Weinberg), The Grapes of Wrath (Ricky Ian Gordon), and Wuthering Heights (Bernard Herrmann). She has also sung older American classics like Blitzstein’s Regina and Floyd’s Susannah.

She considers performing operas like these a “fantastic experience through which I have acquired a whole new set of skills. Now when anyone sends me a new score, I go through it at the piano to see if I have all the pitches. If I do, and I'm free, my response is ‘I'll be there!’ I have a good ear and can pick things up quickly, and I especially love new work because I can go in with no preconceived notions about how I am expected to sound. And acting-wise, the experience is always fresh.” She is especially fond of Carlson’s Anna Karenina opera, which proved a huge personal triumph for her both in St. Louis and in Florida. “But no one has picked it up since. I loved it, and the music is very Straussian.”

She has dipped her toe into Wagner now, as a Valkyrie in Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Houston (she claims it was “fun” to be suspended from a crane 15 feet high above the stage), but the direction she is most interested in now is Czech opera. “I have sung Dvorak’s Rusalka a few times now, and now I really want to sing those great Janáček roles, particularly Jenůfa.” Garcia has his own dream roles: the Duke in Rigoletto, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore, and now that he has been working so much in Germany, he would like to sing Tamino in The Magic Flute in the original language. “I won't be singing Calaf in Turandot or Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West anytime soon,” he says with a laugh.

For the moment, La Bohème is all-absorbing for the two of them again. “I don't sing Bohème the way I did a dozen years ago,” Garcia says. “I have undone my old way of doing things and worked out the kinks and the old habits, a process that was both challenging and rewarding. The opera is new to me again, and the role is now finally an appropriate one for me. My voice is still on the lighter side for Bohème but I feel lots better about it.”

“I always love the chance to return to a role I haven’t performed in a while,” Kaduce says. “It is never a question of working up what I did the last time around. The challenge is to approach an old role in a new way, both musically and dramatically, to bring it to the place where I am now.”

RICHARD DYER is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for over 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Puccini Puzzle

By Harlow Robinson

Portrait of Giacomo Puccini circa 1900
photographer Mario Nunes Vais (1856–1932)
Today, an operatic world without Puccini’s La Bohème seems as unthinkable as a Christmas without The Nutcracker. The most often performed of the composer’s operas, and among the most popular works in the repertoire, it has attracted some of the greatest singers of all time (Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, to name only two) to the juicy leading role of the impoverished, tubercular seamstress Mimì. La Bohème was one of the first operas to be recorded and has been staged in every way imaginable in all the world’s major houses. Hollywood has often plundered its music, most notably in a key romantic scene between Cher and Nicolas Cage in the 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck. This touching tale of struggling Parisian artists even inspired a smash hit Broadway musical, Rent.

But the reviews of the premiere in Turin on February 1, 1896, did not seem to predict such enduring success. Local critic Carlo Bersezio predicted that La Bohème would not survive, a view shared by many other industry insiders. Audiences, however, loved the show, so much so that the initial production ran for 24 sold-out performances. This sharp divide between the negative critical and academic reception and the positive popular one has followed La Bohème (and most of Puccini’s other operas, for that matter) ever since. Composers, critics, and musicologists have repeatedly accused Puccini of pandering to lowbrow, middle-class taste and of shameless manipulation of his audience. “To some younger Italian contemporaries, the name Puccini seems to have assumed honorary status as a four-letter word,” Arthur Groos and Roger Parker write in their guide to La Bohème.

The anti-Puccini forces received powerful ammunition from the grumpy musicologist Joseph Kerman in his influential 1956 book Opera As Drama. Here, he dismisses Puccini’s operas as “second-rate stuff ” and famously condemns Tosca (completed four years after La Bohème) as “that shabby little shocker.” Take that, Giacomo.

So what explains this drastic divergence of views? In her book The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism and Modernity, Alexandra Wilson observes that the explanation lies primarily in the political/cultural environment in Italy and Europe around the time of the opera’s premiere. Puccini (1858-1924) wrote his major operas during a period of considerable turmoil and social change. Italy had only recently (in 1870) been unified into a single nation, and Italian intellectuals and artists were struggling to define what Italian culture should be. For many of them, Puccini’s operas—especially La Bohème, with its French source and Parisian setting—weren’t “Italian” enough, and his musical style was dismissed as too “international” and “decadent.”

Even worse, his characters had a heroism deficit. It was generally acknowledged that Puccini’s female characters—especially Mimì and Tosca—upstaged his men, providing fuel for the oft-repeated claim that he was too “feminine” at a time when Italian culture was striving to become more masculine and nationalistic. To some, the characters of La Bohème were trivial and weak—pathetic losers. One critic even called them “invertebrates,” and others insinuated that Puccini was homosexual (he was not). Wilson links such objections to a rise in anti-feminist, misogynist attitudes in Italy at the time, which would eventually lead to the fascist nationalism of Mussolini.

Critics also relentlessly compared Puccini to the two operatic giants of the age—his Italian countryman Giuseppe Verdi on the one hand (who died in 1901) and the German Richard  Wagner on the other. His operas didn’t have Verdi’s patriotism and strength, or Wagner’s musical complexity and depth, they complained. At a time when the Modernist movement was sweeping across Europe and Wagner’s operas were becoming better known in Italy, Puccini’s style seemed conservative and passé. Filippo Marinetti, strident leader of the Italian Futurist movement, attacked his operas as the equivalent of musical “junk food.”

But none of this intellectual verbiage stopped audiences from loving La Bohème. In fact, it likely encouraged them. The opera’s seductive blend of humanity and nostalgia, its poignant portrayal of tender first love, its very real and humble characters (so different from the remote kings, queens and gods populating many operas), and its glorious flood of symphonic and vocal lyricism—these features never fail to move and enlighten audiences. Today, as in the past, Puccini’s “passionate feeling for life” (as novelist Heinrich Mann put it) continues to seduce and fascinate.

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and the Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History at Northeastern University. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Opera News, Symphony, and other publications.

This article has been reprinted from the fall issue of Coda, the magazine of Boston Lyric Opera. To read the magazine in full, please visit

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Words, Words, Words: Paris 1968

By John Conklin

In the two blazing months of the "Paris Spring of '68," the City of Lights became the City of Slogans. A universe of graffiti (sprayed, scrawled, and painted) of posters, placards, and manifestos, of pamphlets and radical newspapers...texts everywhere amidst the strikes, the demonstrations, the idealism, the  passion, and the violence. Words appeared on crumbling medieval walls, on grandiosely pompous government buildings, on trees, on automobiles, on the pavement. And because this, for the most part, was a university student-run manifestation, there was humor, whimsy, even wit (albeit sometimes, not surprisingly, of a somewhat undergraduate mentality) amidst the high rhetoric of anarchy, passionate idealism, a radical call for political power...for revolution itself. You will see onstage in the BLO production of Bohème a number of these texts, the strikingly concentrated essence of the whole May event expressed in a few words.

Here are a few more that try to give the unique flavor of this event, so full of contemporary relevance (think Bernie), historical fascination, and psychological resonance.

L'IMAGINATION PREND LE POUVOIR (Imagination has seized power)
LE BONHEUR EST UN IDEE NEUVE (Happiness is a new idea)
REVE + EVOLUTION = REVOULUTION (Dream plus evolution equals revolution)
NOUS SOMMES REASSURE. 2 + 2  NE FONT PLUS 4 (We are reassured. 2 + 2 no longer make 4)
L'ANARCHIE , C'EST JE (Anarchy is I)
LA POESIE EST DANS LA RUE (Poetry is in the streets)
LA DURE REALITE DU PAVE (The harsh reality of the paving stone)
SOYONS REALISTES, DEMANDONS L'IMPOSSIBLE (Be realistic, demand the impossible)
EAGERER, VOILA L'ARME (Exaggeration, that is the weapon)
AYEZ DES IDEES (Have ideas)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

La Bohème Fun Facts

Giacomo Puccini was the descendent of a long line of musicians and composers who served his native Lucca, a small city in Tuscany. His great-great grandfather, also named Giacomo, became the organist of the city cathedral in 1793, composing liturgical music as well as dramatic music for public celebrations. Giacomo passed his position down to his son Antonio Benedetto, who inspired musical interest in his son Domenico (Puccini’s grandfather). Domenico studied music in Bologna and Naples, earning serious recognition for his abilities as a composer, before returning to Lucca to take up the position that his grandfather and father had held before him. His son Michele received a more rigorous academic education in music than any of his ancestors had received, then returned to Lucca as Inspector of the Royal Music Institute.

Michele and his wife Albina had seven daughters and one son: Giacomo. There was, of course, a public expectation in Lucca that little Giacomo would grow up to take on his father’s responsibilities and continue the family line. With the support of patrons, he made his way to the Conservatory in Milan, but although he returned to Lucca for a time and composed his early operas there, he never took on the inherited position.

However, although he left the family tradition behind, Puccini carried his musical lineage with him throughout his life. His full name is a collection of the names of his ancestors: Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini.

In the early 1830s, Henri Murger created a series of magazine sketches about the bohemian lifestyle, which he eventually adapted into a novel, Scenes de la Vie de Bohème (1848). Puccini used Murger’s stories as the inspiration for his La Bohème. Murger, in fact, lived the bohemian life in his youth and many of the historical details in his work were based on his experiences. Murger was part of a group of young bohemians who lived in extreme poverty and were called “Water-Drinkers,” because they could not afford anything stronger. Murger lived in a small attic apartment in his early years as an artist and believed in the theory, “Art before life.”

The company Casa Ricordi was Italy’s predominate publisher of musical scores in the 19th century (and still exists today!). Guilio Ricordi was a major force in shaping Italian musical culture, particularly the public’s taste in opera. Puccini was one of his favorite promising young composers. When Edgar, one of the composer’s early operas, bombed at the box office, Ricordi encouraged him to revise and then to re-revise the opera, until Puccini eventually gave up. Ricordi then supported Puccini through the three and a half years it took him to compose La Bohème.

Perhaps the most important way that Ricordi supported Puccini’s career was how he marketed Puccini’s scores to opera houses. Ricordi created a system in which opera house managers who wanted to purchase the rights to one of Verdi’s incredibly popular operas also had to purchase the rights to an opera by one of Ricordi's less-famous personal favorites -- Puccini chief among them. This two-for-one deal ensured that Puccini’s operas were exposed to a wide audience very quickly.

In response to the clear divide between the early, negative critical response to La Bohème and the rapturous enthusiasm of the opera’s first audiences, one insightful critic settled the case this way: “Between the two litigants, I say that the public is right.” Unfortunately, his proposed settlement went unheeded, and the divide between critical/academic opinion and public reception continues to this day. Some of the great composers of the 20th century have joined ranks with the critics, particularly Strauss, Stravinsky, and Webern. Debussy was specifically critical of Puccini’s decision to take on the French subject matter of La Bohème because, in his opinion, an Italian could never understand the true nature of French history and art. And yet despite a century of dismissals by critics and artists, La Bohème remains beloved and has become one of the three or four most-performed operas in the global repertory.

Bohemian culture was said to be “a man’s world.” In its art and literature, women often do not exist, or are suspiciously absent beyond their relations to men. The role of the woman in this culture was to provide men with pleasure and creative inspiration. Women were often categorized as either grisettes, working-class women and housekeepers – or lorettes, beautiful in appearance, but incapable of working “real” jobs. Instead, lorettes acted as, for example, models – one of the lowest occupations in the 18th and 19th centuries for women. Characters such as Fantine in Les Misérables and Mimì in La Bohème are considered grisettes.

Puccini’s La Bohème premiered in 1896, and is one of his best-loved operas (along with Tosca and Madama Butterfly). A hundred years later, the carefree spirit of bohemian culture was brought back to the stage with Jonathan Larson’s adaption of La Bohème in his 1996 Broadway production, Rent. Rent, a modern-day rock musical, is closely based on La Bohème. The works share similarities in music, plot, lyrics, and even some of the specific naming of characters. For example, La Bohème centers around a love story between Rodolfo and Mimì; similarly, Rent focuses on the love story of Roger and Mimi. Rent had its official Off-Broadway opening on January 25, 1996, one week shy of the hundredth anniversary of the first performance of La Bohème. (That’s 52,549,920 minutes!)

These fun facts were collected in collaborations with students at Emerson College, Shani Brown, Emily Duggan, and Joshua Platt.


Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1850-1930, by Jerrold Seigel. Penguin Books, 1987.

Book of Musical Anecdotes, The, by Norman Lebrecht. The Free Press. NY, NY, 1985.

First Bohemian, The: The Life of Henry Murger, by Robert Baldick. Hamish Hamilton, 1961.

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohéme, by Arthur Groos & Roger Parker. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1986.

New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, The, ed. by Stanley Sadie & John Tyrrell. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, 2004. Entry: ”Puccini, Giacomo,” by Michele Girardi.

Operas of Puccini, The, by William Ashbrook. Cornell University Press, 1968.

Paris: The Secret History, by Andrew Hussey. Bloomsbury, 2006.

Physiologie de la Lorette, by Maurice Alhoy. Ligarian, 2014.

Puccini Companion, The, ed. by Simonetta Puccini & Simon Weaver. W.W. Norton & Co., 1994. Entry: “The Puccini Family,” by S. Puccini.

Puccini: His Life and Works, by Julian Budden Puccini. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Renting a Queer Space: The Commodification of Queerness in Jonathan Larson's "Rent," by Helen Deborah Lewis. ProQuest Information and Learning Company, 2007.

Skeletons from the Opera Closet, by David L. Groover & C.C. Connor. Moyer Bell, 1986.

Monday, September 28, 2015

La Bohème: BLO's Version

By Magda Romanska

Rodolfo; Sketch by Nancy Leary, Costume Designer
Boston Lyric Opera’s version of La Bohème relocates the famous opera from mid-19th-century Paris to the Paris of May 1968. The geographical location remains the same: the Latin Quarter neighborhood, which preserves much of the original bohemian spirit with students, artists, and vagabonds of all sorts hanging out at cafés, making art, and debating matters of life and existence into the wee hours of the night. The zeitgeist of both époques is also comparable.

The plot of La Bohème takes place in December 1830, just a few months after the French Revolution of 1830 (also known as the July Revolution), and two years before the June Rebellion of 1832. The Second French Revolution of 1830 (Trois Glorieuses – Three Glorious Days), saw the overthrow of the King Charles X and led to the establishment of constitutional monarchy. Immortalized in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, the June Rebellion (or Paris Uprising of 1832), was a follow-up to the 1830 events. The young artists, students, and expats actively participated in both uprisings. (The story goes that 1832 violence was triggered by a young painter, Michel Geoffroy, who started the uprising by waving the red flag.) The two rebellions were sparked by poor living conditions and general malaise that afflicted France  between 1827 and 1832. Overcrowding and food shortages made the atmosphere in Paris particularly volatile.

The spirit of May 1968 events very much parallels that of the 1830s revolutions. 1968 was a turbulent moment in French history; student protests against the bourgeois and technocratic values of the newly emerging capitalist society channeled the youthful idealism of these new bohemians. As in the original La Bohème, May 1968 in Paris was rife with tension between the romantic ideals of the artists and indifference of the world in which they were forced to function. Like the 1830s revolutions, May 1968 was a rebellion against what the students perceived to be unjust social order.

In staging our production, we drew inspiration from the mid-20th-century German theatre director Bertolt Brecht, whose dramatic theory of distanciation, including the use of placards, signs, and asides, aims to reveal new and unexpected meaning within preexisting text. By distancing La Bohème from its traditional, classic depiction and focusing on the everyday life of French students, we showcase the universal appeal of Puccini’s love story and the transcendental, potent force of youth, driven by passion, desire, and idealism. Revolting against the old culture, old values, and old traditions, the French students of the May 1968 revolution tried to change the world. They wanted to burn down the institutions of the old world order, and perhaps nothing symbolized that order better than the Paris Opera House. Thus, in our production, the Paris Opera House represents both the old order and, ironically, the new foundation of the students’ rebellion.

Musetta; Sketch by Nancy Leary, Costume Designer
Aesthetically, our production calls upon French New Wave cinema, particularly the movies of Jean-Luc Godard, whose loose, non-linear, and ironic storytelling style, which blends multiple narratives and viewpoints, acutely reveals the ideological contradictions of the French protests. The post-war period in France was characterized by rapid economic developments and, in many ways, the students who protested the newly emerging technocratic and capitalist social model were also very much part of it. As the children of the well-off French middle class, they grew up in relative affluence before rebelling against the boring, bourgeois lifestyle of their parents. After the revolution, they all went back to school and to their predetermined, middle-class futures. This revolution was but a brief flirtation with the freedom of an alternative, poverty-stricken, and romanticized artistic life, which many of them knew they would never be forced to live. In this world, Mimì is an outsider. She is not a college student. She works for a living, and she has no middle class life to fall back on after the revolution. She is drawn to Rodolfo because, among other things, he rejects the privilege of his birth, and he is drawn to her because she represents the authenticity of the class struggle, which he is lacking. In one of Godard’s most renowned movies, Masculin Féminin, the film’s most famous chapter is entitled, “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” This oxymoronic statement encompasses precisely the contradiction of the French revolution of 1968: the children of this revolution wanted simultaneously to overturn the capitalist society and live in its comforts.

The barricade; Set design sketch by John Conklin, Set Designer
Our production also references Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 movie, The Dreamers, which chronicles the sexual entanglement of Matthew, an American college student visiting Paris during the 1968 revolts. He moves in with a pair of twins, brother and sister, and for a brief period the threesome live an idyllic and sexually liberated life, only to eventually part ways, leaving Matthew disillusioned and disturbed. In our version of La Bohème, we replace the bohemians’ garret with an abandoned apartment, ready for demolition. The toll gate at the Barrière d'Enfer becomes the makeshift revolutionary barricade that the students have assembled from everyday objects. Painted in steely gray, this barricade is somewhat surreal: both a dreamscape and perhaps a nightmare. Amidst this backdrop of witty, inspiring, and often self-contradictory political slogans, Mimì and Rodolfo’s love story unravels to the heartbeat of the revolution. Mimì becomes a symbol of both the passion and the frailty of the brief, violent insurgence that was perhaps doomed from the very start.

Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg, is an award-winning theatre scholar and writer. She is Associate Professor of Theatre and Dramaturgy at Emerson College, and Research Associate at Harvard University’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and Davis Center for Eastern European Studies.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

David Angus on the Music of La Bohème

Ever wondered what makes Bohème so special? Here's David Angus, BLO Music Director and Conductor of La Bohème, on its music:


For me, the word that sums up Puccini’s music is passion. The surges of emotion that ebb and flow through his romantic music appeal directly to the listeners’ hearts, whether or not they know anything about music. He knows exactly how to allow a singer to soar over the orchestra in wonderful lyrical lines, and he plays with our emotions with his gorgeous twists of harmony.

Puccini was a total master of theatrical effect; he would always use contrasting context to heighten emotional impact, as in the last act of Bohème where the horseplay of the boys is shatteringly interrupted by the arrival of the dying Mimì. He is often accused of manipulating the emotions of the audience, but surely that is a fundamental building block of theatrical writing?

Puccini’s characters and emotions are so real, unlike the heroes, gods and political giants of earlier operas, right up to (and including) Wagner. Suddenly we can all identify with the real pain and happiness that the people on stage are experiencing, and, without any intellectual pretensions, we laugh and cry with them.

What so many critics fail to observe is what an extremely masterful composer Puccini was—exquisite touches of orchestration, tremendous driving energy, subtle harmonizations that tug at the heart strings. He was an ultimate professional whose every note counted, whose every twist of harmony was significant and effective, and who always gave his singers the possibility of singing to the very best of their potential.

Puccini understood staging and timing as no other composer had since Mozart. All the action is built directly into the music, and he never indulges in long musical sections which interrupt the action. His operas are very concise; Bohème, with its four acts, contains under 1 hour and 45 minutes of music altogether.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Get to Know La Bohème

Background information by John Conklin, Artistic Advisor


La Bohème premiered in 1896, in Turin at the Teatro Regio, conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. In 1946, fifty years after that premiere, Toscanini would conduct a radio performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, featuring Jan Peerce, Licia Albanese, and Robert Merrill, which has been issued on CD by RCA Records.

•    First outside Italy: 1896, at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
•    Alexandria, Lisbon, and Moscow: 1897
•    England: 1897, in Manchester, by the Carl Rosa Opera Company, supervised by Puccini himself and sung in English
•    United States: 1897, in Los Angeles (who would have guessed?!), also by the Carl Rosa Opera Company
•    France: 1898, at the Opéra Comique
•    Austria: 1903, at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Gustav Mahler (who was not a big fan of Puccini...he favored the Leoncavallo Bohème—see below)
•    The first production at the Salzburg Festival did not occur until 2012 (snobs!)
Everywhere else, the opera was quick to gain international popularity, which it has held ever since.

La Bohème’s source material was a novel, published in 1851, titled Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, by Henri Murger (1822–1861). Not a standard novel, it is rather a collection of loosely related stories, all set in the Latin Quarter in the Paris of the 1840s and drawn from Murger’s own experiences as a desperately poor writer. It was made into a play by Murger and Théodore Barrière, and it is from this version that Puccini’s libretto is chiefly derived.

The composer Leoncavallo
The Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo—a quite prolific opera composer now best known for Pagliacci—had begun to work on a setting of the Murger story when he found out that Puccini was circling around the same subject. He alerted the press and, after some questionable maneuvers by Puccini and his publisher, Puccini obtained the rights. Leoncavallo went on to write his version, which premiered in 1897. It is sometimes still produced and is not without merit, but inevitably suffers in comparison with Puccini’s masterpiece. Bad feelings endured...from then on, Puccini referred to Leoncavallo (”lion-horse”) as “Leonasino” (“lion-ass”).

In 1957, widow of Luigi Illica, one of La Bohème’s librettists, died, and her husband’s papers were given to the Parma Museum. Among them was a full libretto, which revealed that the librettists has prepared an act which Puccini didn’t use. It occurs between the Momus Act and Act 3, and shows the meeting of Mimì and the Viscount, which causes Rodolfo’s jealousy that he refers to in Act 3. Leoncavallo’s opera includes this scene.

•    RENT:  A 1996 musical by Jonathan Larson is based on La Bohème. Here, the lovers, Roger and Mimi, are faced with AIDS and progress through the action with songs inspired by the opera such as “Light My Candle.”

The cast recoding of Luhrmann's La Bohème
•    In 2002, Baz Luhrmann staged a version of La Bohème on Broadway based on his production for Opera Australia. It played eight performances a week, so there was multiple castings of the principals (including Jesus Garcia, who is singing Rodolfo in the BLO production this Season). His film Moulin Rouge (2001) based part of its plot on the original story.

•    There is a silent film from 1926 with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, as well as other less well known film versions.