Returning to a familiar score like La Bohème is one of the joys of our business. When I open the pages, almost like a journal, my small scribbles, cue indications, marginal comments are links back to memories, great and horrible. In 1996, I was involved in 3 different productions of this opera and all three were beset with trauma. I actually felt the show was cursed and put the score on a shelf for about five years.
Production A was a revival that I was staging for another director in a big theater. We had late arrivals, language barriers, and a slightly enlarged concept – all the neighbors of Rodolfo & friends were added, including the very nosy wife of the landlord Benoit. Extra figures in the piece like this are tricky – especially if the principal artists start to feel neglected or upstaged. That’s when the fur starts to fly! Or illness sets in, feigned or otherwise. I had a footstool hurled at me in rehearsal in anger (and I will never, ever, forget the Italian word for footstool again: SGABELLO!), a soprano storm out in a screaming fury, the original director rip me apart the day he arrived for (god forbid) adapting some bit of business for the new artist in the role, etc. No fun.
Production B was a very small vanity project for a certain soprano. Trying to be helpful ended up getting me roped into not only directing, but supernumerary recruiter, props master, rehearsal space negotiator, scheduler, etc. Somehow, a small donation of time overwhelmed my life for nearly 2 weeks (with very little compensation). I did have a chance to explore some of my own ideas about the piece, but more through the forced compromises of the situation than artistic principals. I suppose “damage control” would be the most apt description. Painful process.
Production C was a last minute replacement situation. It was high-profile revival that needed a good shepherd. However, I wasn’t hired to maintain the production after it opened. On the day of the final performance the scheduled Marcello and Rodolfo were ill. A flu bug was going around, but we had no idea how serious it would get. Schaunard was going to move up to Marcello, and a new Schaunard was located the day before. And I was asked to come back for the day and coordinate. By the end of the performance that evening we had been through 3 Rodolfos, 3 Marcellos, 2 Schaunards, and we were on the verge of losing the Colline to the same flu bug, but he managed to hold it together. I was re-staging scenes behind the curtain at the act changes; we went into 3 increments of overtime. We started Act IV; we had 4 bohemians who had never sung the piece with one another, 3 of whom had never seen the set before! Talk about your nail-biting experiences! Yet the audience was completely thrilled, knowing they were witnessing history! And, it was so earnest, so improvisational, and so emotional; it was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience! And hard enough that I decided to step away from Bohème for a while.
With a piece so familiar, everyone assumes ‘they know it’ and often fail to invest time or energy into re-creating it with new spirit. So, part of my preparation is to acknowledge my past with the piece (those old notes, those ghosts), and relegate it to “foundation” work as we re-animate the piece with our new cast.
I know many of these singers from previous engagements. Some of them are singing these roles for the very first time. Who knows what the conversations will be? Like a great recipe, you can make it again and again, and new ingredients spice things up and keep it fresh. You’ll be hearing from most of them in this blog over the next two weeks, and then seeing the results onstage. I hope the piece will be renewed for you, as we bring our knowledge and experience to focus on a masterpiece of the operatic literature.