La Boheme, 'The gateway drug of operas,' appeals to old and new fans

Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez (seated) stars as Musetta in Opera Memphis' new production of Giacomo Puccini's "La Bohème." Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty has been working to bring new listeners to the art form.

Photo by Photos courtesy of Opera Memphis

Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez (seated) stars as Musetta in Opera Memphis' new production of Giacomo Puccini's "La Bohème." Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty has been working to bring new listeners to the art form.

Marcello (Levi Hernandez, from left), Schaunard (Wayne Hu), Rodolfo (Eric Barry) and Colline (Matthew Curran) are poor bohemians living in Paris.

Marcello (Levi Hernandez, from left), Schaunard (Wayne Hu), Rodolfo (Eric Barry) and Colline (Matthew Curran) are poor bohemians living in Paris.

Opera Memphis’ ‘La Boheme’

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, 1801 Exeter. Tickets are $33-$74. Call 901-257-3100.

At a recent art festival on South Main Street, a singer waded into a crowd of people shopping for paintings and sculptures. With a nod from her boss, the soprano began singing an Italian aria.

Heads turned. People stopped to listen. As rock bands played at either end of the festival, the opera singer's voice rose above the general hubbub without the aid of a microphone or even a soapbox.

In a city known for its collection of noise — from ever-present train horns to rap songs thumping from passing cars — opera music is the last thing anyone might expect to hear outdoors on a typical Sunday afternoon.

But Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty wants it to be more common. He wants people to get excited, or at least curious, when they hear the gossamer high notes of a lyric soprano on a crowded street.

He wants people to become enthusiastic listeners, which is why he spent the last month or so roaming the city with a handful of singers and surprising bystanders with impromptu concerts.

It is also why he's opening the Opera Memphis season Friday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre with one of the most popular operas ever written, "La Bohème."

"'La Bohème' is the gateway drug of operas," Canty said. "There are things about it that make it ideal for a lot of listeners. People identify with the story. It's about a seamstress with boy troubles. As much as I love big operas like 'Tosca,' (the protagonist's) troubles are really specific and rare. But what's great about 'Boheme' is that we recognize the characters as us."

Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera, about a group of poor young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris, has inspired generations of artistic types with its depiction of lovers, dreamers and tragic circumstances.

Struggling to pay bills while also following one's muse is itself a theme so familiar that the opera is frequently adapted to contemporary times. The filmmaker and producer Baz Luhrmann modernized it for a 2002 Broadway run that won a Tony Award. The popular 1996 rock musical"Rent," by Jonathan Larson, is based on "La Bohème," and even uses a motif from the opera as a recurring theme.

Many young opera singers and directors spend the early part of their careers in productions of "La Bohème."

That goes for Angela Fout, whose Opera Memphis debut marks the third time she'll have played Mimi, the seamstress who is chronically ill, but too poor for medical treatment.

Fout said she has watched numerous performances of Mimi by famous singers and attends as many productions as she can. Her own take on the role brings out the character's strengths, rather than her frailty.

"She's fragile because she's ill," Fout says. "My main complaint is that often she is portrayed as this delicate flower, but she is actually immensely strong and a courageous person."

Another famous character from the opera, Musetta, is a sly and flirtatious woman who dates wealthy men but is in love with a poor painter.

Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez, also singing for the first time in Memphis, says that people identify with the characters because even in their difficult circumstances, they are multifaceted soul-searchers.

"Musetta matures a lot in this opera," she said. "She is constantly reinventing her life, but also realizing what is truly important. She values love and friendship."

Canty said he resisted the "great temptation" to modernize this production, though he previously directed a bare-bones contemporary version in Israel.

"With something like 'Bohème,' sometimes the most avant-garde way of doing it is to do exactly what is written," he said. "I find that no matter what year you put it in — whether the 1950s or the 1920s — it's just as easy to connect with the characters."

For his part, Canty aims to appeal to both first-time opera-goers and longtime fans who have likely seen "La Bohème" on many occasions.

"Opera and Shakespeare are the two things you don't want to direct from the assumption that everyone has seen them before," Canty said. "If you approach any work of art humbly and honestly, something amazing is bound to happen. If we did have a goal in mind, it was to make this feel like a very organic 'La Bohème.'"

Whether because of the show's popularity with opera buffs or because Canty has had opera singers roaming the streets of Memphis for the past month promoting it, tickets are expected to sell out for Friday's performance, while Sunday's matinee is selling briskly.

"One guy saw us singing on the corner of Sam Cooper and Parkway and started tracking us on Twitter," Canty said. "He wasn't an opera fan, but then he came to one of our concerts. If we can get people interested. It's a game of inches. But I think our efforts are going to pay off in the long run."

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