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What's Opera, Doc?

La Bohème comes to Broadway not as a knock-off, but in its glorious original form.

By New York City
Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème(© Sue Adler)
Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème
(© Sue Adler)
What a concept! Rather than take the story of a great opera, throw out the score, write pop songs to replace it, and stage the thing as a Broadway musical, why not simply present the original work on the Great White Way? Opera fans were probably as delighted as they were surprised when they first heard that Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème (1896) was coming to Broadway with its melodies intact, not to mention its Italian libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.

The Main Stem Bohème opens at the Broadway Theatre on December 8, following an engagement in San Francisco. In case you haven't heard, this production is directed by Baz Luhrmann, whose post-modern movie musical Moulin Rouge -- partly inspired by Bohème and La Traviata -- was a box-office phenomenon. As he did with a previous Bohème for the Sydney Opera, Luhrmann has updated the action of the work to 1957, though the story is still set in Paris. "I'm against what we call 'Hamlet in Hawaii,' which is updating for the sake of trying to be groovy and swinging," the director told TheaterMania at a press junket for the show. "It becomes counterproductive when you have to explain more in justifying your additions. Any updating should be about revealing what is there. If it doesn't do that, it's an inappropriate device."

Luhrmann's Bohème features a cast of 60 performing the opera in Italian with the aid of English surtitles, thereby bringing to mainstream theatergoers a timeless story of young love doomed by terminal illness. The cast includes three sets of Rodolfos and Mimis (the central romantic duo) and two sets of Marcellos and Musettas (the secondary couple). As it turns out, several of these singers -- chosen from more than 2,000 auditionees from all over the world -- have previously performed Bohème with opera companies. "There's a lot of fantastic operas out there that have great stories, great abilities for singers to act," says Alfred Boe, one of the production's Rodolfos. "So I think this is something that should happen in the future -- to get more operas on Broadway, to break down that barrier between the classical opera house and the musical theater. Puccini didn't write La Bohème just for the elite or the aristocracy; he wrote it for the guy who sweeps the streets as much as for kings and queens. It's for everybody."

David Miller(© Michael Portantiere)
David Miller
(© Michael Portantiere)
To hear those involved tell it, the casting process was painstaking. According to David Miller, who shares the role of Rodolfo with Boe and with Jesús Garcia, "It was a combination of finding the right look, the right sound, the right chemistry and connection between the couples. It was at the fifth or sixth callback, I think, when they started pairing us up, putting groups of bohemians together to see how the dynamics would work. I sang with five or six Mimis that day; but it wasn't until the audition process was finished that I actually found out who the Mimis were and it wasn't until we got to the first rehearsal that I knew which one I'd be singing with." (Miller's partner is Ekaterina Solovyeva.)

Though Miller had studied the role of Rodolfo, he had never sung it in performance before he was cast by Luhrmann -- nor had he ever seen a full production of La Bohème. "I have about 30 roles in my repertoire and I've seen about 40 or 50 different operas, but this is one that I just never got to," he says, "so I'm going in with a clean slate." Jessica Comeau, who alternates with Chloe Wright as Musetta, says that she very much appreciated the relatively lengthy rehearsal period for the production, which lasted for the entire month of August and the first week of September -- 10 hours a day. "It's not like this in opera," says Comeau. "There, it's three weeks of rehearsal and then opening night. You can do a good job, but how can you build a relationship with someone on stage? Having so much rehearsal time makes it really special."

Of course, Bohème may also be seen in town at the Metropolitan Opera or the New York City Opera -- but those shows do not have the Luhrmann touch. "Thirteen years ago," says Luhrmann, "the decision to update [the opera for the Sydney production] came from our mission...to make it as much as possible like the experience that the audience had in the 1890s. We realized we had too many obstacles that Puccini didn't have. His audience knew that these guys running around in velvet checked pants, floppy hats, and beards weren't ZZ Top -- they were bohemians."

What has it been like for Luhrmann and his colleagues to revisit Puccini's masterpiece? "The Sydney production was a very special experience for us," says the director, speaking on behalf of a creative team that prominently includes his wife and professional partner, Catherine Martin -- a double Oscar-winner for Moulin Rouge -- as set designer and co-costume designer. "At the time, we were bohemians ourselves, 25-year-olds," Luhrmann continues, "but I turned 40 in San Francisco on the day [the new production] opened. I think we've brought more gravity to the piece; it's a little bit more about the melancholia of saying goodbye to one's youth and embracing the future."

Baz Luhrmann(© Michael Portantiere)
Baz Luhrmann
(© Michael Portantiere)
Soon enough, we'll know whether critics and audiences will embrace Luhrmann's vision -- whether or not La Bohème will fly on Broadway. It's an exciting gamble that's summed up by Eugene Brancoveanu, one of the production's two Marcellos (the other is Ben Davis). "I've always gone for wacky, crazy projects," says Brancoveanu, "because one day, you know, we all march into the grave. I wanted to be able to look back and say, 'I did La Bohème on Broadway.' It's like selling ice cream in Greenland: You don't usually do that, but if the ice cream's really good, it's going to be a hit."

The Luhrmann Bohème is produced by Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, who were also responsible for Rent, the terrific rock musical by Jonathan Larson that's based on Bohème. "We took Jonathan to the Met to see the opera and I think he learned a lot about how to structure Rent from it," says Seller. "You know, we have Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, both of which are genius. I feel the same way about La Bohème and Rent."

Needless to say, Seller is thrilled that Luhrmann is the lynchpin of the new Bohème. "You might expect to see Baz do this opera at the Met," he says, "but it wouldn't be the same audience. And you wouldn't get singers in their 20s. I think, if this works, you'll see three Broadway productions of operas announced within the next six months. Because, remember: If you get the right one, you don't have to pay royalties!"


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