Friday, January 7, 2011

Rock Opera

21st century opera production is all about finding clever ways to land a new generation of butts in seats. Very often this means adding a modern spin—setting Don Giovanni on the streets of Harlem, or setting Cosi fan Tutti in a high school, complete with a Dorabella who obsessively texts her sister Fiordiligi. Or, if you take La Boheme, update the characters to mid-nineties New York, give the music a rocker feel, and —

Oh, wait. 

If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you knew that RENT is based on La Boheme. When I first saw RENT as a preteen, while I technically knew that the source material was La Boheme, I didn’t know enough about opera to understand what that meant. RENT is chock full of references to its predecessor—however, there isn’t much crossover between the two audiences, and references, after all, are meant to be noticed. So, if you are ever rocking out to RENT in the car, tug on your seatmate’s sleeve during “La Vie Boheme” and point out Musetta’s waltz, played by Roger on the electric guitar.


Setting: Boheme: Paris; RENT: NYC
The dread disease: Boheme: Tuberculosis; RENT: AIDS.
The characters:
      Boheme:                                        RENT:
Marcello, a Painter                             Mark, a filmmaker
Musetta, a singer                               Maureen, a performance artist
Rodolfo, a poet                                  Roger, a songwriter
Mimi, a seamstress                            Mimi, an exotic dancer
Colline, a philosopher                         Collins, a computer genius
Schaunard, a musician                       Angel Schunard, a street performer
Alcindoro, a councilor                        Joanne, a lawyer
Benoit, the landlord                           Benny, the landlord

Other points of interest:
  1. In an early scene in Boheme/RENT, Mimi knocks on Roger/Rodolfo’s door because her candle has gone out. In the resulting scene, Roger lights her candle, sexual tension ensues, Mimi loses an object belonging to her (her ring/stash of cocaine), and they look for it together. While some of the lines in the scene translate, Boheme-Mimi is a demure little seamstress and it is doubtful she would inquire, “they say I have the best ass below 14th street, is it true?” If she had even lived below 14th street.
  1. The beginning of Mimi’s aria “Si, mi chiamano mimi,” (or, “they call me mimi”) is mirrored by the end of the “light my candle” duet in Rent, in which Mimi sings as she exits: “they call me…they call me…Mimi.” Aaaand, blackout.

  2. For most of the show, Roger, a musician and former guitar hero, is trying to write a song.  However, he has persistent writers’ block, so all he can play is the theme from Musetta’s waltz, “Quando me’n vo.”  The theme also plays during moments of high emotion, like at the end when Mimi dies. However— Mimi doesn’t actually die in RENT, she just sees a bright light for a little while and then recovers.
Basically, take La Boheme, change every dimension of the work to line up with the 1990s instead of the 1890s, including the fundamental musical idiom and language, and you get RENT. You would probably never guess it was based on Puccini if you didn’t already know. However, RENT is still almost continuously sung—why not call it an opera, too? The term “rock opera” is far more closely associated with musical theater than opera, and maybe we in the opera world should steal it back. It is definitely in classical opera’s interests to point out that opera is an incredibly broad category— it’s essentially just a theatrical work where the mode of communication is singing. Now, I have absolutely no desire for the Met to put on Jesus Christ Superstar next season, or to put the Broadway musical on the same plane as Mozart, but it’s worth it to remember that all these stories and musical traditions are very closely related.

There are also many current productions of La Boheme set in modern times—a soprano playing Mimi in La Boheme could be dressed exactly like a broadway belter playing Mimi in RENT .

Putting Puccini’s music on the same stage as the nineties rebel-punk aesthetic highlights the contrast, sure, but it also shows how well they go together. Marcello and Rodolfo may not get to rock out exactly the way that Mark and Roger do, but they still get to make thrilling sounds with their voices. Listen to both versions—for instance Musetta/Maureen’s music, “Quando me’n vo”/“Take Me Or Leave Me,” and see how they each move you in different ways.

Now, La Boheme is not the only opera to inspire a modern musical—it’s also true with Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon, an adaptation set in Vietnam (not Japan) during the Vietnam war. I know there’s at least one more…

Ah yes. Aida is based on Aida. (Elton John/Verdi)

- Audrey Chait, Brown University

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