Friday, December 18, 2015

Why do Singers Wish Each Other Toi, Toi, Toi?

Elaine Alvarez in BLO's 2015 production of Kátya Kabanová.
Photo by Eric Antoniou.
Opera lovers may be familiar with the phrase, toi, toi, toi, uttered among singers before the house lights fade and the conductor lifts the baton. Pronounced TOY (rather than TO-WAH like the French word for you), the mystique of this tradition of well-wishing is woven tightly into the superstitious history of the performing arts and the multicultural mélange of opera. So, what does toi, toi, toi mean, and where did it come from?

Working in the theater is one of the most superstitious professions, said to be second only to horse racing. This is undoubtedly in part because there is a long history of backstage crews being made up of sailors on leave, navy or otherwise. Sailors brought with them their own traditions and superstitions that, when brought into the theater, stuck. For example, to whistle on deck of a ship is considered bad luck, and so it is also bad luck to whistle onstage or backstage in a theater. Among the many things it is unlucky to do in a theater, one of the worst is to wish a performer good luck.

Toi, toi, toi is an onomatopoetic imitation of the sound of spitting, done to ward of a hex or evil spirits. It is always uttered three times, and sometimes accompanied by pantomimed spitting over someone’s shoulder while in an embrace. It comes from Yiddish, Hebrew, and Old German traditions where saliva was believed to have demon-banishing powers. Some even say it is a shortened version of the German word teufel, meaning “devil,” thus uttering his name to ward him off. It is a common good luck sentiment to wish someone in Germany regardless of the context. How this became specifically associated with opera remains a mystery, but in the superstitious theater, warding off evil spirits can only be helpful!

Alternatively, you may have heard opera singers wish each other in bocca al lupo, Italian for “in the mouth of the wolf.” The traditional reply is crepi il lupo, or simply crepi, meaning “may the wolf die.” It is an Italian idiomatic expression that refers to any challenging scenario, likening it to being caught between the jaws of a wild beast. Perhaps this is similar to the circus trick of putting one’s head in the mouth of a lion or even a biblical reference to Daniel in the lion’s den. Although it is also unclear how this saying became associated with opera, it is clear that Italian theater and music traditions have had a tremendous influence on the art form.

The most common and well-known (at least in America!) expression of good luck in the theater is “break a leg.” There are many anecdotes and theories as to how this tradition began, yet the sentiment remains the same. Similarly, at the ballet, and later extended to all dance forms, dancers wish each other merde in French. Again, there are many theories about how this tradition began, but this one is my favorite: Since wealthy patrons used to arrive by horse-drawn carriage, the more horse droppings out in front of the theater, the more paying spectators were inside!

So next time you are in the Theatre District and happen to run into a performer before a show begins, tell opera singers, “Toi, toi, toi!” or “In bocca al lupo.” Exclaim “Merde!” to a dancer, and when in doubt, “Break a leg!” will always work. Above all, honor the long-standing and often strange tradition in theater by avoiding the words “good luck” before the curtain opens; if not you may risk unintentionally wishing the opposite!

Want to read more? Check out these online articles!

- Rebecca Ann S. Kirk, Manager of Education Programs

Monday, November 23, 2015

Looking Back on In the Penal Colony: Feedback and Reviews

As we approach the holiday season, let's take a moment to look back on our seventh Opera Annex production, In the Penal Colony by Philip Glass. Staged in the historic Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, this unique, dark, and unsettling production left an indelible mark on critics, students, and audience members alike.

“The stage pictures and imagery of every moment [were] astounding and heart-clenching.”
– A. Alexander, MIT student

“Excellent performances … this newest production will be counted as another in [BLO’s] column of successes.”
Boston Globe

“I was struck by the powerful string instruments and by the poignant theme. I am a new convert now against the death penalty. It's hard to explain, but this opera has broadened my views on that subject.  Thanks for giving the opportunity to expand my mind. I hope I can do the same for my students.”
– Boston Public Schools educator

“As part of its imaginative Opera Annex program, Boston Lyric Opera upended convention even further by putting the piece on in the Boston Cyclorama ... [T]his cavernous space, cleverly treated with absorptive materials as part of the set design, proved ideally resonant for voices and instruments, luring the audience into the opera’s ghoulish spell.”
Wall Street Journal

“I really enjoyed the opera and it really was unforgettable. I wasn't expecting it to be an opera so I was really surprised when the actors started singing. The lyrics on the screen was a great way to keep the audience focused. It also worked well when the Officer was struggling with his emotions inside him and the machine breaking down. I first thought the screen itself was not functioning well but soon realized that it was part of the theater. It was amazing.”
– M. Saito, Boston College student

“Captivating … very well presented, very well sung.”

“Unforgettable … a true triumph in the company’s history.”
South Shore Critic

All photos by T. Charles Erickson for Boston Lyric Opera.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In the Penal Colony: A Sneak Peek!

Check out this special SNEAK PEEK from Monday evening's Dress Rehearsal for In the Penal Colony! This Season's Opera Annex production, staged in the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, is pitch-black fable about crime … and a very unusual punishment.

November 11–15 | 2015
The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts

Boston Lyric Opera’s new “Opera Annex” production of Philip Glass’s dystopian In the Penal Colony, based on the Franz Kafka short story, has transformed the historic Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts into a terrifying torture machine at the heart of the drama. Pictured (l.r.) are David McFerrin as The Officer and Neal Ferreira as The Visitor. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Neal Ferreira as The Visitor faces the terrifying presence of The Officer. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

David McFerrin as The Officer threatens Yury Yanowsky as the Man.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Yury Yanowsky as the Man, Neal Ferreira as The Visitor, and David McFerrin as The Officer.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The “Real” Devil's Island

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

In his short story "In the Penal Colony," it is often accepted that Kafka was referencing (in his usual slightly oblique and ambiguous manner) the actual French penal settlements (usually referred to in the singular as Devil's Island) in French Guiana. In the story, a reference is made to the "tropics," and the Officer and the Traveler (or "Visitor" or "Explorer," as he is described in various translations) speak in French. But the landscape is described by Kafka as barren, rocky, and desert, rather than the actual (ironically) lush rainforest environment of Guiana—and it is also mentioned that the other characters in the story (the Soldier and the Prisoner) do not understand French (odd, considering they are both part of the military establishment). So like other locations in Kafka's disturbingly unhinged world, the penal colony is both terrifyingly real and suggestively mythic—just as the "real" Devil's Island was an actual place which has assumed mythic proportions in our cultural imagination.

The penal colony of Cayenne was opened in 1852 and used for the exile of French political prisoners, mixed with the most hardened thieves and murderers, until the system was closed down in 1953. It was notorious for its desperate isolation, both physical and mental, the unceasing brutality of the punishments, the scourge of tropical disease, and the overwhelming sense of a cruel finality. The actual prison extended over several locations, but the most isolated was the Île du Diable, and its most famous prisoner was Captain Alfred Dreyfus. A vast majority of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent there never made it back to France. Few prisoners escaped. In 1854 France passed a new law of forced residency that required convicts to stay in French Guiana after completion of their sentences for a time equal to that of their forced labor. A limited number of convicted women were sent with the intent that they would marry freed convicts and aid in the development of the colony. This policy was discontinued in 1907.

The settlements, now in seemingly picturesque ruin and overgrown with the relentless force of the jungle, have become a tourist destination—the actual Devil's Island can be seen only from off-shore. Read more here.

This documentary is replete with every verbal cliché about Devil's Island but contains much interesting historical footage:

Devil's Island has, not surprisingly, become the locale of many (mostly lurid) Hollywood films (Hell on Devil's Island, I Escaped from Devil's Island, Women of Devil's Island, etc.). The most well-known (and serious in its intent) was Papillon (1973), starring the somewhat unexpected juxtaposition of two very different actors—Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. It was based on the now largely discredited  autobiographical account of the escape of Henri Charrière. It was filmed in Spain and Jamaica, but the famous cliff-jumping scene was done in Hawaii. (McQueen insisted that he, not a stunt double, do the actual jump.)

In 1899, five years after the beginning of the Dreyfus Affair, the French pioneer filmmaker Méliès made a silent film on the subject. It is of more historical interest than dramatic or visual—and it has the dubious distinction of being the first movie censored for political reasons. France indeed was very sensitive to the notorious image that Devil's Island conjured up and, over the time of its existence, tried to censor all references. But the image lives on in our collective unconscious—nowhere stronger than  the horrific and disturbing Kafka short story and the powerfully dramatic Glass opera derived from it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Math, Magic, and Music: An Interview with Carl Rosenberg, Acoustician

We sat down recently with Carl Rosenberg, an acoustician with Acentech, Inc. who consults with BLO on Opera Annex productions, including the upcoming In the Penal Colony at the Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts. A fascinating mix of math, music, and magic, read on for his insights about what makes a site-specific work sound glorious!

BLO: How did you get into this field?
Carl Rosenberg: Well, I studied to be an architect but found that I didn’t have a design flair. But I really resonated with the course I took in architecture school on architectural acoustics, which combine my interest in buildings with some facility in music and a more engineering bent on how buildings are put together.

Now I’m primarily a consultant. I work for colleges and universities, for classrooms, for atriums and public spaces, lots of small auditoriums at schools, office acoustics, a variety of things. 

BLO: Are you a musician yourself?
CR: I studied music the way kids do—taking piano lessons! But I like learning more about how spaces sound and what one does in the design of spaces to influence that acoustical quality, which in turn affects how we hear, how you can understand speech, the excitement of a dramatic production if you can understand the words, and so on.

BLO: How did you begin working with BLO?
CR: I think I was referred to Esther [Nelson, the General & Artistic Director of BLO] by a mutual friend, who suggested that if there were concerns or questions about the acoustics for these more challenging or non-traditional spaces, I might be able to help. And indeed the consultant work I do as my career deals with a wide variety of acoustical problems in spaces. So it started with learning more about the Annex productions, and my association with BLO developed through that.

BLO: What are some of the hallmarks of good acoustics? What do you listen for in a space?
CR: Good acoustics obviously depends dramatically on what the goal is of the space—it would be different for an office, for a restaurant, for a classroom, for musical productions, different for different types of musical productions. Where there would be amplified sound, you would want a certain type of acoustical quality, but for live music (especially the voice) you want a different type of acoustical quality. It also depends on the space and what the relationship is between the audience and the performers.

With opera, you want to allow the voice to resonate, to be heard, and you also want make sure there’s a degree of articulation and clarity. And those are the challenges that we’re faced with in any operatic venue.

BLO: When you walk into a space that we’re considering for Opera Annex, what are the things that you’re listening for or evaluating in that space?
CR: The relationship between the audience and the performers, because that’s the most important way to gauge the audience for the performance. [I also evaluate] the degree to which the space will support the propagation of the voice and the music that goes with it without sounding too muddy, or without overpowering the voice with extraneous sounds. One of the variables that helps us evaluate that balance is reverberation, which is the multiple echoes that you hear in a space. So you would rather the environment be more supportive of the voice than, for instance, singing into a closet.

BLO: What contributes to that? Is it the hardness of the materials that comprise the space?
CR: Exactly. The reverberation, which is one measure of the quality of the sound, is directly proportional to the volume and inversely proportional to the amount of absorptive materials in a space. So with those two variables, we can control that reverberation, which is measured in seconds. The audience is always a major component of the absorption in a hall—in so many spaces, the reverberation changes dramatically from an empty space to a full one. But if we make allowances for that and look at the other materials as well as the volume of the space, we have some sense of what that reverberation will be like.

Set model for In the Penal Colony. Design by Julia Noulin-Mérat.
BLO: So in the Cyclorama, we had to add a lot of absorptive materials to the set. Can you talk a little bit about how you came that conclusion?
CR: Anyone who goes into the Cyclorama, especially when it’s empty, will be overwhelmed and impressed in a positive manner by the huge volume, and the fact that all the surfaces that are on the finished materials now—floor, ceiling, oculus—are hard, sound-reflecting materials. There’s nothing soft or porous or fuzzy about any of them. Again, that will change with the addition of an audience, because all of us introduce absorptive materials, but with some rough calculations my colleagues and I figured that this space would be too echoy [for the opera]. So we worked with the design team to incorporate additional absorptive materials. The problem with the Cyclorama is exacerbated by the fact that its circular shape will focus sound in certain ways, just like a lens…or anything that has a concave surface. In the Cyclorama, both the ceiling above, which is a concave dome, as well as the circular floor plan [contribute to this]. So the location of the treatments is our attempt to control that focusing that will occur.

BLO: Are sounds generally more reverberant when they are in a space that is circular?
CR: [In a circular space,] the sound isn’t reflected or bounced around in an even manner…the extreme case of this focusing is evident at the Mapparium at the Christian Science Center, where there’s an entire sphere and if you go inside you can be overwhelmed by the echoes and the reverberation, the focusing, that occurs. The problem is not that severe at the Cyclorama, of course, but [the Cyclorama] was obviously not designed for live performances, it was to look at a painting of the battle [of Gettysburg].

BLO: What has been the most challenging venue that you’ve worked on for the Opera Annex series?
CR: Well, I think the Cyclorama will be one of the most challenging. Although, the Castle was an even larger volume and potentially even more reverberant. So that was a challenge too. The balance of these Annex productions is getting the absorption to be part of the stage set, the design; it’s not a permanent installation, [and we’re] limited by budget. In the Cyclorama what we could do was also limited by the structure itself and its historical significance…

BLO loads in to the Temple Ohabei Shalom for
The Love Potion, November 2014.
Another challenging space was the Temple Ohabei Shalom, where we did the production of The Love Potion last Season. An interesting space and  a huge volume, but as it turned out, that entire interior surface had already been treated with a sound-absorbing finish. Which made it quite non-reverberant, or dead, which is not what you would expect given the visual impact. You walk in and you expect to hear a long reverberation like a cathedral, but it’s not that at all. So our challenge in that case was to help bring some of the sound back to the audience that would otherwise be lost.

BLO: Anything you want to add?
CR: I would want to say that it’s been a profound honor to work with the production staff and the music staff; obviously we all share the same goals, but they have a love of opera which is inspiring and contagious and that’s been a wonderful opportunity for me.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Living Legend: Philip Glass Visits the MFA

On Wednesday, October 21, Boston Lyric Opera was honored to join the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Shapiro Celebrity Lecture Series in welcoming living legend Philip Glass to the Shapiro Celebrity Lecture Series for an interview and talk, titled Philip Glass: 40 Years of Opera

First, BLO artists kicked off the event with scenes from In the Penal Colony, performed by Neal Ferreira as the Visitor and David McFerrin as the Officer, accompanied by James Myers on piano.


Following the performance, Mr. Glass spoke with WGBH's Jared Bowen about his storied career, as well as some of his early struggles and striving, including driving cabs in New York City, working as a plumber, and much more!

Mr. Glass also addressed the difficulty of being a working artist today, as well as his own writing process, saying, "I just write it down--but it wasn't like that in the beginning." 

Stay tuned for excerpts from their talk on Jared Bowen's show Open Studio, November 6 on WGBH!

All photos by Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

“Variety, Curiosity, Exploration:” A Composer in Search of Almost Everything

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

In my blog article on Philip Glass, I mentioned the multitude of forms, genres, performance styles, and performance forces that he seems to delight in. Here are a few more examples of his range and how he has intriguingly merged virtuosic performances with the essence of his compositional style.

But first up, here’s another chance to sit down across a table from him, via this interview on YouTube. Glass is a very charming and frank companion, and a disarmingly casual speaker even as he deals with very important issues in the life of a contemporary composer.

He has another opera based on Kafka, The Trial which was written in 2014 for the Theater Wales—the same group who gave the premiere of In the Penal Colony. Here, we see how the opera was put together as well as a few scenes.

Satyagraha is, I think, my favorite Glass opera. I saw the premiere in Rotterdam in 1980, and the Metropolitan Opera production (first given in London by the English National Opera) is one of the best productions of any opera that I have seen. Here is a short introduction that features a few of the many striking stage and musical images.

A short digression…outside the Met Opera House, a demonstration, and a moment which shows his political commitment and passion for freedom and justice, an integral part of his personality and musical persona.

Appomattox is another historical meditation, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 2007. A new production will be given by the Washington Opera this season.

The famous scene from The Perfect American between Walt Disney (in the last months of his life) and a terrifying “Abraham Lincoln.”  The libretto for this piece is by Rudy Wurlitzer, librettist of In the Penal Colony.

Koyaanisqatsi, Glass’ score to a film by Godfrey Reggio. Philip and his ensemble have played this score live to accompany film showings around the world. In fact, it was at such a presentation in Sydney, Australia, (I was doing The Pearl Fishers there) that I first met Philip, and we had our first discussions about his then-new opera, In the Penal Colony. These details of the whole film project are quite fascinating.

Dracula…a new soundtrack commissioned by Universal Studio to accompany a 1999 DVD release of the 1931 film and written for the Kronos Quartet (frequent collaborators with Glass). Here we see a live performance, accompanying a showing of the film.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Philip Glass: An Operatic Life

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor 

Image courtesy of Stewart Cohen
Nefertiti, Walt Disney, Columbus, Martin Luther King, Robert E. Lee, Einstein, Gandhi, Galileo, Stephen Hawking, and so on: What composer has managed to weave such an astonishingly disparate set of figures into his operas? Yet the range merely illustrates the scope, the variety, the endless curiosity and exploration of the protean Philip Glass. His 26 operas (the exact number count varies, as he plays extensively in the borders between genres) form an unassailable place at the center of contemporary opera—and of course, there certainly are more to come. In the website Operabase’s statistical listing for the seasons 2009- 14, his operas take first place in the category of performances of works by a living composer by a wide margin (Glass came in at 79, compared to 29 by Jake Heggie and 28 by John Adams). The Fall of the House of Usher is his most-performed opera.

He has set libretti in a multitude of languages—Sanskrit, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, Akkadian. He has set texts drawn from such figures as Allen Ginsberg, Doris Lessing, Edgar Allan Poe, and Franz Kafka (In the Penal Colony, of course, but also The Trial). He finds a vital compositional energy in close and ongoing collaborations with directors, designers, performers, and conductors such as Robert Wilson, Martin Scorsese, and Ravi Shankar. He writes in a wide range of compositional genres: nine symphonies, plus chamber music, concerti, movie scores (earning three Academy Award nominations), song cycles, music for dance, incidental theater music. He is a sympathetic, relaxed, and eloquent speaker and a skilled writer. His recent book, Words Without Music, is a unique combination of intriguing autobiography (including anecdotes on studying at Juilliard and then with Nadia Boulanger, driving a taxi, hanging out in New York City in the ‘60s, the trials and delights of becoming a “famous” composer, and more), a fascinating glimpse into the musical intricacy of his compositions, a sobering study of how a contemporary “serious” musician can (or cannot) make a living, and, as Laurie Anderson puts it, “his transcendent vision of human culture as the transmission of ideas through time.”

To end on a more personal note, I have had the great pleasure myself to collaborate with Philip on two occasions. In 1990, he composed music for the chorus in a production of The Bacchae, a production of the Public Theater in Central Park that I designed. The compositions were complex, difficult, and summoned up a vision of the exaltation and terror of the Greek theater at its most powerful.

Glass in 1993. Photograph by Pasquale Salerno.
Public domain.
I also worked closely with him, the director JoAnne Akalaitis, and the costume and lighting designers Susan Hilferty and Jennifer Tipton on the world premiere of In the Penal Colony, given in Seattle and subsequently in New York City. He was at all times both rigorous and open, generous of spirit and just a great guy to sit down with and have a talk (about anything). JoAnne had an idea to introduce Kafka as a character, speaking text from his diary, and after much discussion (it significantly altered the form and rhythm of the piece), he embraced the idea. There was also inevitably much talk about how to represent the “machine” on stage. I remember gingerly suggesting perhaps the movements of members of the string quintet, as they played the driving score with its almost obsessive energy, might “be” the visual manifestation of the machine. This was seriously considered but, in the end, discarded. I was always impressed by Philip’s genuine ability to understand and to absorb any ideas of his fellow collaborators into the spirit of the production…even if in this case, my idea embarrassingly equated his music with a terrifying instrument of torture. Perhaps I had not thought the implications out thoroughly, but Philip just smiled generously.

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Looking Back on La Bohème: Feedback and Reviews

La Bohème has left the stage, but the music lives on! Enjoy this sampling of reactions from students, audience members, and critics.

“One has to applaud Boston Lyric Opera for the boldness of its new production.”
The Boston Globe

“I thought the production was fabulous in every way. I hope we get the reviews it deserves for being so creative and lush and poignant. Congratulations to the entire artistic team!”
– Tania Zouikin, audience member

La Bohème was the first opera I have been to, but it surely wont be the last. The captivating performance had me glued in from the first note to the very end…What a marathon—and they all seemed to handle it with ease!”
– Owen Mansfield, Harvard student

“A risky and rewarding update…[with] intellectual punch and polish.  This ‘Bohème’ finds itself in a new era, looking sharp and sounding terrific.”

“I absolutely adored the Opera last night. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it at first, and signed up just to try it out. But when I saw it, it took me into a whole other world.”
– Student, Tabor Academy

“An exceptionally talented cast gave rich performances across the board.”
Boston Musical Intelligencer

“I was very impressed. The concept was intelligent and it was realized excellently musically, dramatically, and vocally.”
–Audience member

“From the beautiful and ornate theater to the minimalist set, everything was visually wondrous. Then the music began and within ten minutes I was lost in the story.”
– Student, Tabor Academy

All photos: T. Charles Erickson for Boston Lyric Opera

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: May I Have This Dance?

Dear opera goers, opera fans, and fellow "flaneurs" on the streets and byways of the Internet,

I'm glad to be returning to "In the Wings." Over the next months we will be following the current BLO Season's intriguing round-trip from Paris to Devil's Island and back again (what a journey!) and checking in on YouTube for some perhaps surprising videos.

Musetta's delirious waltz-song from Act II of Puccini's La Bohème is certainly one of his most famous and enticing melodies. As I look back on the BLO production, which closed on Sunday, Emily Birsan's elegantly sexy delivery stands out—especially as the Marx Brothers (Karl and Groucho) gazed down (lasciviously?...censoriously?) from the walls of Café Momus on the BLO set. Here are a few variations on a theme.

The film Moonstruck is one of the most charming movies to employ opera as a central emotional thread.

Puccini has not escaped the reach of pop music (and maybe he's enjoying every minute of it).

A curiosity is up next. In a 1950 movie, Jane Powell sings the waltz (atrociously...she was only 21, but really that's not much of an excuse...and in what language is she torturing us?). She's introduced by Carmen Miranda (why didn't SHE sing this?).

Another variation: trumpet. Why not?

And now for some serious singing: Leontyne Price in 1971. Elegant, beautiful to be sure, but perhaps a bit overly-refined?

In contrast, Maria Callas in concert in 1958. Edgier and sharper.

And lastly one of my favorite singers, the utterly unique and idiosyncratic Concita Supervia...from a 1934 movie, Evensong.

Happy Waltzing.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Get to Know In the Penal Colony

Background on In the Penal Colony by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor


Kafka in 1906
World Premiere
In the Penal Colony premiered in 2000 at ACT Theater, Seattle. In the cast were John Duykers, who had created the role of Mao Tse-tung in Adams’s Nixon in China, as the Visitor and Herbert Perry, who had created the role of Vasco da Gama in Glass’s The White Raven, as the Officer. Perry’s identical twin brother, Eugene, alternated the role with him. (The brothers Perry are perhaps most well known for their roles as Giovanni and Leporello in the Peter Sellars production of Don Giovanni, available on DVD). JoAnne Akalaitis directed, and the designers were John Conklin, Susan Hilferty, and Jennifer Tipton. This production was subsequently performed in Chicago at the Court Theater and in New York at Classic Stage Company.

Kafka’s story had been adapted for the stage by Steven Berkoff in 1969. The choice to use it as a basis for an opera was Glass’s, as was the creative team. He worked closely with his frequent collaborator and former wife JoAnne Akalaitis and the librettist Rudy Wurlitzer in shaping the piece into what he referred to as a “pocket opera.”

Rudy Wurlitzer is a novelist and screenwriter whose film credits include Little Buddha, Pat Garett, and Billy the Kid. He also worked with Philip Glass on The Perfect American, an adaptation of Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel about Walt Disney (the opera is available on DVD).

Subsequent Performances
2002 at the Berliner Kammeroper; 2009 at the Opéra National de Lyon; 2010 at the Linbury Studio Theatre in London’s Royal Opera House, in a production by Music Theater Wales which then toured to several British cities, and was also  recorded for a CD. In the Penal Colony has proved to be one of Glass’s most performed works.

Written for two singers—a baritone (the Officer) and a tenor (the Visitor)—and 2 silent roles (the Guard and the Prisoner) and an ensemble of 5 strings. For the original production, the director, JoAnne Akalaitis, added an actor in the speaking role of Kafka, who served as a narrator and onlooker, his text being drawn primarily from Kafka’s diaries. None of the subsequent productions have used the Kafka character, and the number of nonspeaking roles and the placement of the ensemble have varied. The London production eliminated the Guard, while the French production added a second Guard; an Australian production placed the musicians offstage and set the action in a hospital-like corridor.

Kafka’s calmly brutal and deeply disturbing short story (“In der Strafkolonie”) was written in 1914, revised in 1918, and published a year later. These dates significantly frame the horrors and destruction of the First World War. In 1916, Kafka gave a reading of the story in Munich. An observer wrote, “The listener too was dragged into this hellish torment. He too lay as a victim of the torture bed, and each new word was carved as an agonizing wound in his back. A muffled thud…confusion in the hall...people carried out a lady who had fainted. The group of listeners began to thin. Some fled at the last moment before the vision of the poet could overwhelm them. Never have I witnessed a similar effect of spoken words.”

Read the entire short story by Kafka here: 

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.