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.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

La Bohème Production Timeline

As we gear up for our Season-opening new production of La Bohème, which will be set during the student revolution in Paris 1968, BLO's dramaturg Magda Romanska put together this fascinating list of influential Bohème productions since its premiere. The opera has been reimagined countless times over the past 119 years—and BLO's innovative staging by Rosetta Cucchi opens October 2.

La Bohème Production Timeline

February 1, 1896La Bohème has its world premiere in Turin at the Teatro Regio. The premiere is conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini.
June 16, 1896The first production of La Bohème outside of Italy takes place at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
April 22, 1897The United Kingdom premiere of La Bohème takes place at the Theatre Royal in Manchester. The opera is presented by the Carl Rosa Opera Company under Puccini’s supervision.
May 16, 1898The New York City premiere of La Bohème takes place at Palmo’s Opera House, with Giuseppe Agostini singing the role of Rodolfo.
July 1, 1899The first production of La Bohème produced by the Royal Opera House opens, with Nellie Melba as Mimì.
1946Fifty years after the opera’s premiere, Arturo Toscanini conducts a radio performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It is the only recording of La Bohème by its original conductor.
1974John Copley’s groundbreaking production of La Bohème opens at the Royal Opera House.
1990Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Bohème for Opera Australia becomes a worldwide phenomenon. The production is revived in New York in 2002.
1996Directly inspired by La Bohème, Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent becomes an instant hit.
December 8, 2009La Bohème opens at The Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn, London. The production runs until 15 May 2010, making it the longest continuously running opera in history. On July 27, 2010, the production transfers to the Soho Theatre in London.

Above: Original 1896 La Bohème poster  by Adolfo Hohenstein