A Detroit opera house is staging Puccini’s classic La boheme backwards to give it a more uplifting ending, with the fourth act first in what the director says is a more fitting and hopeful version for the post-pandemic era.
The opera, written in the early 1890s, tells the story of a group of artists, musicians and writers living in poverty in 1830s Paris.
Rodolfo, a poet, meets his neighbor Mimi, a seamstress, on Christmas Eve and the pair fall in love. But Mimi’s tuberculosis, worsened by her wretched living conditions, causes her tragic death at the end of the opera.
The story was the inspiration for the Broadway musical Rent, and the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, Moulin Rouge.
Yuval Sharon, artistic director of Detroit Opera, described by The New York Times as ‘perhaps the most innovative opera director in the United States’, said he wanted to make the masterpiece more hopeful.
‘It’s amazing to emphasize Rodolfo’s hopefulness at the end,’ said Sharon, noting that the opera normally opened with optimism about love, but ended in despair.
A scene from the Detroit Opera performance of La boheme, with Mimi, struggling with tuberculosis, played by Marlen Nahhas. Her lover Rodolfo is played by Matthew White
Mexican-Lebanese soprano Marlen Nahhas will play Mimi, while Matthew White will play Rodolfo
‘Doing it in reverse order says we’re not going to avoid suffering in life, but we can build up the characteristics to deal with it.
‘That can be through hope, through friendship, through love.
‘In many ways as opposed to a more conventional La boheme, what made life worth living?’
The opera’s website states: ‘From finish to start, from death to the promise of new love, from loneliness and despair to the joy of friendships, wine, and song, this reversal presents the characters and arias we love in a refreshing, new vision of the story. Our favorite starving young artists and lovers survive to hope another day.’
The opera will be performed three times, on April 2, 6 and 10.
Yuval Sharon, the Chicago-born artistic director of Detroit Opera, is known for his outlandish performances and unusual settings
Sharon told Detroit News that he had the idea to stage it backwards 15 years ago, but everyone turned him down.
‘Every door was closed in my face on that one,’ Sharon said. ‘The nice ones would say ‘Great idea, but not for us.”
Wayne Brown, Detroit Opera’s president and CEO, said he was open to the idea, adding that it ‘wasn’t totally out of the box’ because he knew Sharon wanted to play with opera in unusual settings and stagings.
‘I thought it was unusual, bold. I thought it was brave to take on such a task,’ said Brown.
‘But I wanted to be assured that the music does not change. And the music will not change. It’s just in a different sequence. The beloved tunes, that sense of emotional connection, remains intact.’
The Detroit Opera House will stage the unusual telling of the classic opera in April
Brown said he felt the restructuring was timely because it provided hope following the pandemic.
‘When you think of the role of the pandemic and this sense of darkness and this pause we’ve been going through, once we can get out of it, we have that sense of hope and aspiration and ending in love as opposed to death,’ said Brown.
Sharon told the paper that one major challenge was making the cast and musicians understand why the classic work was being tampered with.
‘We had this really interesting dialogue that’s happened over the last few weeks of people that say, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way.’
‘And a big part of my role in this production is to say, ‘Just because you’ve always done it this way doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to do it or other ways to explore.”
He said he hopes both opera connoisseurs and newcomers will try the revived classic.
‘There’s a lot to discover and a lot they’ll recognize,’ he said.
‘Audiences still want to see something that resonates with their own lives and our times.’