The Ultimate Opera

By staff May 1, 2003

I've always been in awe of people who were born loving opera. They obviously have more cultured genes than I do. Like most of us, I squirmed though my first several operas as a teen-ager and young adult. I couldn't follow the plots, the music was not of the sort I was used to, and each one seemed to last forever. Opera, I concluded, was an art form that just didn't speak to me. Then I saw La Boheme.

Today it is the biggest hit on Broadway in a spectacular new production directed by Baz Luhrman. But when I first encountered La Boheme, it was a low-end touring production in Utica, New York, in a church basement, I seem to recall. But La Boheme is so foolproof that it worked its magic even under such unpromising circumstances. For people born without the opera gene, it is the perfect opera. So simple, so complete, so easy to follow. Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy watches girl die of tuberculosis-all told with such beautiful music that a door swings open and you suddenly see what the opera lover sees in every opera.

What makes La Boheme so good? Let's start with the music. Puccini's gift was his ability to dream up beautiful melodies. They are so beautiful that they are almost too beautiful. They soar and ache. The emotion finally hits a high point-and note-and the strings come in and the entire audience has a little sort of musical orgasm. In each Puccini operas this happens two or three times. But in La Boheme it happens the most and the best.

Oddly, when other composers are compared to him, the comparison is not always a compliment. It implies something a little too florid and sumptuous, almost over the top. Look at the strange career of Andrew Lloyd Webber. He's always being criticized for, as someone put it, his "little pieces of Puccini." There certainly is some merit to this complaint. The first time I heard Barbra Streisand sing Memories I assumed it was from a Puccini opera that I was unfamiliar with.

But there is another reason for the similarity between the two. Puccini, who wrote La Boheme in 1896, was one of the architects of 20th-century pop music. His work remains so popular because we understand it. It's not the least bit foreign or strange or overbearing. It's no surprise that Puccini is always being ripped off. Lena Horne's biggest hit was Don't You Know, a note-for-note version of Musetta's Waltz, arranged in pop song format.

So-the music is great. But a lot of La Boheme's success stems from its story. In the operatic world, no story is too outlandish to turn into an opera. There is no end of contrivances, love potions, mythological creatures and Shakespearean ploys, the longer and more drawn out, the better. But La Boheme is simplicity itself. Rudolfo, a struggling poet living in a Parisian garret in 1830, meets Mimi, a seamstress who lives downstairs. She coughs a lot, but they embark on a whirlwind affair amidst the raffish glamour of the bohemian demi-monde. Then they end up at the Belgian border where they have a fight-about what I've never been able to figure out-then head back to Paris, where they reconcile, and Mimi dies. Her cough was worse than she was telling people.

From this brief outline I'm sure you can see the "first-love" angle; and indeed, La Boheme does personify that once-in-a-lifetime discovery of the perfect sex-and-soulmate. But it does something else, too. It's the ultimate artistic example of the adolescent death wish-the fantasy of you-or better yet, your girlfriend- undergoing a highly romantic demise, which will then make everyone feel really, really sorry for you and wish they'd been a whole lot nicer.

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For proof of La Boheme's uniqueness, one need look no farther than Broadway, where two different versions of it are now playing nightly to packed houses. The first, conceived by Luhrman, is, along with The Producers and Hairspray, the hottest ticket in town. When I went to see it recently, I was filled with curiosity about how Mr. Luhrman, who directed Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and is also notable for his hit song about wearing sunblock, Everybody's Free (to wear suncreen), would gussy it up. With his reputation I figured he'd deconstruct the whole thing and turn it into some sort of MTV video. I couldn't wait.

Well, I was wrong. He completely respected the material. It was the original opera, note for note, aria for aria. But in true movie fashion he did scour the world for the best-looking young opera singers in existence, and that effort paid off. You know how so many young opera singers just don't cut it, looks-wise? The boys are too dorky and the girls could stand to lose a few pounds. Not these opera singers. They're so buffed and polished and made-up they look like something the Style Channel sent over.

As far as I could tell, the kids sang great. But the real triumph of Luhrman's Boheme is its look. Not only does the cast look great, but the sets and costumes do, too. Here we have Mrs. Luhrman to thank; she designs all Baz's projects. The action has been shifted to 1957, and everything is done is shades of gray and silver, suggesting a New Wave French movie of the time. The elaborate set is highly detailed and a delight to examine during the boring stretches, particularly the building next to the famous Café Momus, which, from the comings and goings I observed, and peeks one was afforded into the windows, was apparently some sort of brothel.

That a really good production of La Boheme can run indefinitely on Broadway speaks for itself. That a highly bastardized version of the plot, with a completely different score, can also run indefinitely is even more impressive. I refer, of course, to Rent, which is still packing them in at the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street.

Rent is one of those musicals that speaks to troubled teens, particularly those who belong to the Drama Club. You see them gathered in front of the theater like groupies, hoping for a student ticket so they can see it for the umpteenth time, or failing that, finding it enough just to be near the sacred ground of the theater where it is playing.

I had avoided Rent all these years, as I'd heard some of the music and it sounded nothing at all like Puccini. And besides, I didn't like the mikes the cast wears. From the pictures I'd seen, the actors look like a bunch of AT&T operators, putting on a play. But finally, in the best interest of Art, I went.

It was OK. They tarted up Mimi quite a bit. She had an attitude I didn't care for and seemed a little, well, cheap. And Musetta had somehow transmogrified into a transvestite. But that overwhelming sincerity and all that glorious self-pity were still there. I looked around at the audience and saw quite a few who looked just like the kids I'd seen hanging around outside the Nederlander Theatre. They were mouthing the words as tears streamed down their rapt faces. That's La Boheme for you. You can't kill it no matter how hard you try.

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