Whether in San Francisco’s North Beach in the 1950s, or Greenwich Village in the 1960s or present-day Seattle enclaves of Sodo and Georgetown, young people with artistic aspirations but scarce cash have gathered to make a scene.
But the great-great-grandaddy of the artistic counterculture? The Left Bank of Paris, mais, bien sur.
Giacomo Puccini’s eternally crowd-pleasing 1896 opera “La Bohème” returns to McCaw Hall this week, in a new Seattle Opera production that casts a nostalgic gaze on the habitués of 19th-century Paris garrets — wannabe painters and poets who can barely scrape up the francs for cheap wine and baguettes.
Despite its depiction of poverty and untimely death enmeshed with hopeless love, “La Bohème” is like a luscious French pastry in some respects. It contains some of Puccini’s most rapturous music. And the love affair between the poet Rodolfo and the sweet, tubercular seamstress Mimi is one of the great romantic linkups in all of opera. (Who can resist a penniless poet who sings to his paramour, “When it comes to dreams and visions and castles in the air/I’ve the soul of a millionaire”?)
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But “La Bohème” is more than creme brulee. It is also a font of enduring romantic images of the starving-artist life, its enticements and perils.
Those images have, over the past century, taken root as archetypes. Where did they spring from? Are they now simply sentimental and trite? Can the saga of Rodolfo and Mimi be relevant to the way fringey artistic youth live now?
Israeli opera director Tomer Zvulun contends that “La Bohème” tells “a universal, timeless story. What happened in 1830s in Paris, or in Seattle in 2013 or Tel Aviv in the 1990s, when I was a young artist there, could happen anywhere, anytime.”
“These are shared sensibilities,” he insists, “and young people are always falling in love, having their hearts broken, following their dreams and encountering tragedy for the first time. That doesn’t change.”
Love and death fuel many an opera, but “La Bohème” was one of the first set in an iconoclastic urban milieu. It is allied with “verismo,” a post-Romantic musical and literary movement that centered on relatively realistic characters — as opposed to the aristocratic and mythic figures previously the norm.
To some degree, “La Bohème” drew from the lives of actual people, who were fictionalized in a collection of vignettes titled “Scenes de la Vie de Bohème,” by French writer Henri Murger. Puccini and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa loosely based their opera on the 1845 book.
In his stories, and a play of the same title, Murger popularized “bohemian” (previously a label for roving French gypsies) as a term for the struggling artists of the edgy Latin Quarter of Paris he fraternized with in the 1830s.
Some had drifted there from smaller cities and towns, but could find no work in the City of Light to support their artistic endeavors. They were nicknamed “the water drinkers” (being too poor to even buy wine), and among them were such future luminaries as the poet Charles Baudelaire and the painter Gustave Courbet.
Murger’s semifictional literary sketches of cafe life sometimes satirized the flamboyant, free-living and promiscuous behavior of his peers, and they bemoaned the hunger and TB that plagued (and sometimes killed) them. But he also wanted to legitimize bohemians as a creative, idealistic class of youths who had been “badly judged until now.”
Among his characters: the poet Rudolphe and his painter friend Marcel. They reappear, in adapted form and with Italian names, in “La Bohème,” as do their lovers Mimi and Musette.
If Murger’s work is little known outside France today, it was a cultural signpost for subsequent generations of bohemians.
Zvulun, the director, notes that decades after the book came out, Puccini saw in Murger’s tales something of himself as a struggling composer, living in a low-rent district while studying at Italy’s Milan Conservatory. According to his diary, he and his cohorts were so strapped for cash one day that four of them divied up a single herring for dinner — an incident that found its way into his opera.
“Doesn’t it seem to you like the first scene of act four of my Bohème?” Puccini wrote to a friend. “I lived that Bohème, when there wasn’t yet any thought stirring in my brain of seeking the theme of an opera.”
“La Bohème” was not the product of a starving composer. It was Puccini’s fourth opera, but its success eclipsed its well-received predecessor, “Manon Lescaut.” It’s been produced continually around the world — more than 100 times by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and by Seattle Opera on numerous occasions (most recently, in 2007).
The work also inspired Jonathan Larson’s cleverly modernized, phenom Broadway musical “Rent.” It retained some of Puccini’s plot (and a soupçon of his music), but changed the locale to New York’s Lower East Side, and the scourge of TB to the AIDS epidemic.
But it’s fair to say that in an age when happening art scenes are so quickly commercialized and trivialized in popular culture, today’s audiences are more jaded about them. As in “Rent,” scruffy urban neighborhoods that prosper from an influx of artists now tend to become so quickly gentrified, the low-income musicians, writers and painters who revitalized them can no longer afford to live there.
Depictions of the current scene on a trendy TV series like HBO’s “Girls” de-romanticizes artsy “dropouts” by showing that many have college degrees, and financial backup from well-heeled parents. They may be underemployed and obscure, but they’re eating well.
Through Puccini’s eyes
These days, European productions of “La Bohème” are often updated, to give the work more grit, and a more immediate, less sentimental tone.
But Zvulun has his own approach, first applied in his hit 2008 production for the Cleveland Opera.
“We’ve slightly updated the setting to around 1896, when Puccini wrote it,” the director explains. “It’s a very exciting period because Paris was in the midst of great social and political turmoil, and great technological advancement. Photography and cinema were exciting developments, and I liked the idea of looking at all that through Puccini’s eyes.”
Exploiting the technical capabilities of McCaw, Zvulun says he and set designer Erhard Rom (a Seattle native) are inserting photographic projections “at the beginning and end of every scene. We’re interested in finding the visual equivalent of the music, and the Paris of our imagination.”
Some images are from the celebrated Paris street photography of Henri Brassai and Eugene Atget. Others,” says Zvulun, “are taken onstage by the characters. One is a picture of the lovers that will disintegrate before us as their lives change and tragedy occurs.”
Rather than run from the nostalgia factor in “La Bohème,” Zvulun wants to embrace it — from the perspective of an artist looking back on his own salad days. “We are exploring the idea of memory, how it is captured, and what happens when we look at our younger selves as we grow older.”
The romance of fin-de-siècle Paris can never be replicated. But there will probably always be some version of “la bohème” to glance back at, with fondness and regrets.
“Every generation captures views of itself in different ways,” Zvulun muses. “I could have easily transposed the opera to another city. And if we did it in 2013, these artists would probably be taking pictures with their cellphones and tweeting them to each other.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org