La bohème is about youth, love, poetry and survival. What makes this opera beloved now as much as 120 years ago are the characters. In them we recognize parts of ourselves and can all relate to the plight of the artist, whether or not we are artists ourselves. Our craving to feel alive and experience life at its most exciting and beautiful is reflected in the characters that Giacomo Puccini and his librettists created, inspired by Frenchman Henri Murger’s stories in the mid-19th century.
The choice of words in La bohème stem directly from Murger’s texts. Rodolfo’s famous aria “Che gelida manina” (What a cold hand) comes from Murger’s specific description of the poet’s first meeting with the grisette: “But what contributed above all to make Rodolphe madly in love with Mademoiselle Mimi were her hands, which in spite of household cares, she managed to keep as white as those of the Goddess of Idleness.” Schaunard’s arrogance, as another example, perhaps stems from his aristocratic background that, while not made obvious in the opera, is permeated throughout Murger’s compilation of stories. Musette, during personal reflection, notes, “each of my loves is a verse, but Marcel is the refrain.” The simplicity of the characters depends on their basic need to survive in their given circumstances, while at the same time seizing the moment to find pleasure, love and adventure.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Murger’s text is the author’s own self-awareness as to what it truly means to be an artist, or rather what it should not be, and the way that is translated in Puccini’s work. In one of the final stories, Marcel reflects, “It is not enough to wear a summer coat in December to have talent; one can be a real poet or artist whilst going about well shot and eating three meals a day…we are old, my dear fellow; we have lived too fast.” In other words, an artist need not suffer. And yet there is suffering in both Murger’s words and in Puccini’s score. How poignant for Puccini to make reference to a coat, most significantly in the final moments of the opera, perhaps to highlight the discovery that material and vain concerns have no significance in defining human existence, much as Murger expressed.
What we can take away from this masterpiece in our own time is easy to pin down. La bohème survives because it is the epitome of youth tainted by harsh socio-economic realities and evokes in us a desire to be as free as the Bohemians portrayed on the stage. And with Mimi’s young demise we find ourselves lamenting Rodolfo’s loss because of our desire to find love for longer than just a passing moment. Perhaps it is the tragic conclusion of La bohème that inspires us to live each moment to the fullest. We are made aware that time is short and, in Murger’s words, “A clock is a domestic foe who implacably reckons up to your existence hour by hour, minute by minute, and says to you every moment, ‘Here is a fraction of your life gone.’”
Nov. 4 & 6, 2016
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>>Another Italian composer and rival of Puccini, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, also composed an opera titled La bohème. In a rather public meeting, Leoncavallo accused Puccini of stealing his subject material. Refusing to let go of the idea, Puccini proposed the following solution; that the public should decide which version they preferred. After ten years of co-existing in Italian theatres, Puccini’s version emerged as the favored bohemian opera.
>>At the time that it was produced, Puccini’s La bohème was considered quite risqué. Just think about it—the story centers around the open affair of Rodolfo and Mimi, and it is heavily suggested that the two are sleeping together despite being unmarried.
>>As a teenager, Puccini walked twenty miles to buy a ticket for a performance of Verdi’s Aida. He found it so inspiring that he chose to dedicate himself to the composition of opera.
>>One of the most monumental arias in La bohème can also be found on film. Just check out the score of Moonstruck, featuring Cher and Nicolas Cage.
>>One of Broadway’s most well-known musicals uses Puccini’s opera as source material. Jonathan Larson’s RENT couldn’t be more unlike La bohème upon first glance—it is, after all, a rock musical—but beyond this, the similarities are quite clear. The two works share certain musical aspects, plot, lyrics and character names. Rodolfo is embodied in the character Roger and his love interest, Mimi, retains her name in the Broadway production. The lives of poor young artists are central to each work, and both plots are driven by medical epidemics—one encounters tuberculosis in La bohème and HIV/AIDS in RENT. Musical parallels are seen in the songs “Che gelida manina” and “Light My Candle” and frequent references to “Musetta’s Waltz” are made throughout the score of RENT.
Don’t miss Opera Omaha’s La bohème!
Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, 2 p.m.
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Born in on the 22nd of December 1858 in Tuscany, Giacomo Antonia Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was one of nine children and part of a musical dynasty established by his great-great grandfather. The young Puccini began his musical education at an early age, tutored first by his uncles, he then came to study under the composers Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli at the Milan Conservatory. Following the death of his mother in 1884, Puccini moved to Monza, a town near Milan, bringing with him his sweetheart, Elvira Gemignani, who happened to be married to another man. In 1886 Puccini and Elvira had a son, Antonio, and the family increased again in size as Elvira’s daughter, Fosca, came to live with the pair. In 1891 the family moved to Torre del Lago, a fishing village in Tuscany, where Giacomo and Elvira were legally married in 1904, following the death of her previous husband. Although the union would continue to be riddled with affairs, Puccini found a personal refuge in the Italian countryside, where he could freely drive automobiles and pursue his love of hunting. In 1924 another passion of Puccini’s would become the cause of his death—a longtime consumption of Toscano cigars and cigarettes encouraged the growth of a serious throat cancer. Following a difficult surgery, Giacomo Puccini passed away on November 29th in Brussels, clutching the incomplete score of his famed Turandot.
A predominant composer of late-Romantic Opera, Puccini is best known for his works Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Turandot, as well as his famous La bohème. Yet Puccini also created eight other operas, including the stunning La fanciulla del West produced by Opera Omaha last season, as well as sacred and secular music for orchestra and chamber ensembles, and songs for voice and piano. Puccini is notable for composing in the “verismo” style a sort of musical realism that utilizes average men and women as its subject matter, and seeks to integrate the underlying drama of the libretto with the music of written in the orchestral score. Puccini also strove to keep his music up-to-date with current trends by incorporating symphonic and harmonic aspects of French and German music into his own work. For example, the vocal lines of Puccini’s operas are much more “through-composed” or integrated with the orchestral music and plot than their Italian predecessors, most of which relied heavily on the aria-recitative formula. Puccini also drew on folk melodies for inspiration, notably in the opera Turandot.
As is the case with any composer, the events of the world around him inspired Puccini’s writing and informed the content of his operas. The 19th century is marked by the growing international influence of the British, Russian, and German Empires alongside the development of the United States into a world power. With the increased prominence of these countries emerged distinct national styles of composition, notably the French, German and Italian camps, which Puccini would later utilize as resources to inform his own operatic works. Increased ease of communication and transportation (the first commercial automobile sale in 1886 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869) would also make it easy for Puccini to encounter new musical styles.
Personal experience informed many aspects of Puccini’s characters and plots, though others relied more heavily on the skill of his librettist. In fact, many scholars and friends of the composer note the marked similarities between La bohème and Puccini’s own life as a young man in Milan. The poverty that underscores the life of the famous operatic Bohemians is so poignant, perhaps due to Puccini’s personal experience in this area. As a conservatory student, prior to the success of Manon Lescaut that rocketed the composer to the world stage, Puccini became very familiar with almost constant shortages of food, clothing and money, frequently pawning off his possessions to cover basic expenses.
Nov. 4 & 6, 2016
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A group of young Bohemians commune together in poverty, but passion emerges when a chance encounter causes Rodolfo to fall in love with the enchanting Mimi. Yet Rodolfo worries that his destitution will only quicken Mimi’s lessening health. A tale of joy and sorrow, of love and loss, the timeless boy-meets-girl love story of La Bohème sings meaning into the small mementos and chance encounters that come to define our very lives.
Puccini first settled on the subject of a Bohemian opera in 1893 and his interest in the material was strengthened following a well-publicized argument with rival composer Ruggero Leoncavallo. Thus the premiere of La bohème on February 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy was highly anticipated among the public. Interestingly enough, this first performance garnered a subdued reaction from the audience and polarized responses from critics, yet the opera quickly gained traction throughout Italy and four more opera houses had mounted their own productions in the following season. In October of 1897, the opera had also reached the shores of North America with Los Angeles hosting the American premiere. Puccini’s famous Bohemian work first appeared at Opera Omaha in the 1967-68 season and has since been performed on eight different occasions. With its November 2016 production, La bohème will tie with another Puccini opera, Madama Butterfly, as Opera Omaha’s most frequently produced title.
Leave it to the Critics:
Despite the great success that La bohème found among audiences across the globe, a number of critics succeeded in finding areas for complaint. Some found the sweet nature of the plot off-putting, having expected something more along the dark and dramatic lines of Puccini’s earlier success Manon Lescaut. Others found his music unsophisticated and too easily enjoyed, mocking the apparent lack of difficulty in the writing and finding the musical content to be, on the whole, unintellectual. The esteemed Benjamin Britten, in fact, put pen to paper in 1951 and wrote of La bohème, “after four or five performances I never wanted to hear [it] again. In spite of its neatness, I became sickened by the cheapness and emptiness of the music.” Sensibilities of the critics aside, audiences have continuously fallen in love with this opera thanks to the scoffed at sweetness of the story and its flowing melodies, which though simple, are nonetheless poignant.
Name that Tune:
La bohème is monumental in that it marks the emergence of Puccini as a fully mature composer. His original style utilizes short motifs to represent characters, themes and moods to underscore or highlight certain aspects of the opera’s plot. Through his use of these motifs, Puccini allows the audience a glimpse into the minds and emotions of his characters, giving them room for development beyond what is contained within the libretto. It’s no wonder then, with Puccini coming into his own as a composer, that La bohème contains some of opera’s most memorable arias. Among these is “Che gelida manina” the Act I introduction of Rodolfo and his dreams and the famous love duet “O soave fanciulla.”
Nov. 4 & 6, 2016
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Artistic Associate – Production
Length of time you have worked with Opera Omaha: 2 Months
Six-word summary of your job/duties/what you do: Everything they ask me to do.
Describe the best or most rewarding part of your job: Congratulating the children after an audition.
What is something you do in your position that people might not expect: Let me put it this way: when they put “Other duties as assigned” on the job posting, know that it will cover a lot of interesting activities.
Your all-time favorite opera or theatrical production: Handel’s Acis and Galatea
Your unofficial position in the company: New Guy.
Your secret talent: I can find pretty much anything hidden in the internet’s many tubes.
Create a super-hero persona based on your position in the company: The Valiant Volunteer! I’m the new guy to the company, plus I have a job that has me helping several different people simultaneously. I’m available to help someone when they need it!
Pick two more staff members to be your sidekick and arch-nemesis: Being the New Guy, I don’t really have a sidekick. But my pink erasable pen is most definitely on my utility belt. My nemesis would most definitely have to be my phone, mostly because I haven’t yet figured out how to transfer a call to someone else’s voicemail (no matter how many times they show me).
Outside of the office you can be found doing….: I write! (A lot.) For example, I have a play being produced in the Pittsburgh area, and I have a comic book (Tegan and Archer) for sale online.
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