Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture, School of Music and Center for the Performing Arts will present Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s immortal opera “La Boheme” at Eisenhower Auditorium on March 28 and 29.
Based on the quasi-autobiographical writings of French novelist Henri Murger, the four-act story — featuring four young bohemians and the seamstress two of them love — will feature live accompaniment by the Pittsburgh Opera, Penn State School of Music students and the Penn State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerardo Edelstein.
This production of “La Boheme” is directed by Dr. Ted Christopher, associate professor of music at Penn State and artistic director of Penn State Opera Theatre. The opera will be performed in Italian with English subtitles projected over the top of the stage throughout the performance.
When the possibility of partnering with the Center for the Performing Arts on a fully produced opera came up, it was pretty clear from the beginning that everybody was interested in doing a fully produced production.
“It seemed logical to do ‘La Boheme’ because Pittsburgh Opera had the sets,” Christopher said. “It is appropriate for young singers, and it’s a story about young people.”
Mimi (Carrie “C.J.” Greer) is a seamstress who lives in the same building as the man she comes to fall in love with, Rodolfo. Mimi may seem simple, but the character Greer created her to be is far more complicated. Using historical references and clues from the text, Greer interpreted her as the daughter of a wealthy family who chose to break away and live a life of poverty more in line with her beliefs — of love, dreams and personal success. As a woman choosing poverty, Mimi uses her beauty, charm and knowledge of upperclass mannerisms to make a living as a courtesan. The men view her as beautiful, but never want to know or understand who she truly is — only who they want her to be in that moment.
“When Mimi meets Rodolfo, he opens up to her, explains he is a poet and a dreamer, and then asks if she would share with him who she is — and for the first time, she does,” Greer said. “She allows him to see her dreams, her love of spring, flowers and poetry, and they instantly find themselves soul mates — falling in love quickly, as opera tends to do.”
As the story moves forward, Rodolfo realizes that Mimi is sick with consumption. Realizing how sick she is, he tries to leave her because he does not know how to help her. She looks for him and overhears his confession of his love for her, but also his inability to help her get better. She chooses in that moment to leave him, so she will not be a burden to the man she loves. He then convinces her to stay in the relationship through the winter, stating they will break up in spring.
“They do part ways, time passes and she eventually falls severely ill and is brought back to Rodolfo,” Greer said. “She is finally able to tell him that, despite having parted, he is the love of her life, forever and always. Rodolfo returns her love just before she dies in their apartment, having found warmth and love in his arms at last.”
“It really is one of the most joy-filled, effervescent, and fun operas ever written,” Christopher said. “But it is also one of the most poignant, bittersweet, and quite sad and virtually tragic operas ever written. The scenes from the bohemian life that we see are the joy-filled, devil-may-care attitudes that they have at the beginning, but by the end we see the facing of death of the beautiful seamstress Mimi from consumption, which is something that many young people died from during that time.”
Greer said she was vaguely familiar with the storyline of “La Boheme,” having seen “Rent,” the Broadway musical based on “La Boheme.” So she said she listened to various singers, translated the text and started an online Italian language course to help her better understand the vocabulary, pronunciation, grammatical structure and lilt of the speech.
“Opera is usually vocally dominant, but the story of any production has always been my focus,” she said. “I’ve worked very hard in this production to allow the story to be as equally important as the vocal production. I’ve also never been in an opera before and have very limited classical voice training, so I’ve spent a great deal of time on learning to produce the appropriate sounds, pronounce the Italian properly and marry Puccini’s orchestrations with the story. It has been a very long and challenging process for me.”
The opera was written entirely in Italian by Puccini. Christopher said it is crucial, when you can, to perform operas in the language they were written.
“The composer wrote the music based on the cadence and the rhythm and the sound of the language in front of him — he didn’t write the music based on the cadence and rhythm and sound of the translation of the language,” he said. “So whenever you perform a translation of a work, you are changing it a little bit from how the composer wrote it, the way the music was conceived, and the intention of the piece. Italian is one of the most beautiful languages in the world to speak and it is also one of the most beautiful and friendly languages to sing in.”
“It’s a real wonderful opportunity for us, the School of Music and Penn State Opera Theatre to be able to present this kind of opera in this community, with a live performance, with an orchestra, and with some of our finest singers and our most talented graduates and community members,” Christopher said. “It’s a real gift for us to be able to do it, and I think it’s a real gift for the community to be able to see it.”