One of the most performed operas in the world, La bohème, was composed by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Its world premiere took place in Turin in early 1896. It’s based on a collection of stories published in 1851 called Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger.
Set in the 1930s Bohemian quarters in Paris the plot centers around group of impoverished artists. The poet Rodolfo meets a seamstress, Mimì, and they immediately fall in love. The painter Marcello has a tempestuous sometimes relationship with the glamorous singer Musetta. Musician Schaunard and philosopher Colline make up the rest of the crew, dodging the landlord’s rent demands, celebrating once they do get some money in, and living their best lives until tragedy strikes.
We’re basing this discussion on the English National Opera’s 2009 production at the London Coliseum, directed by Jonathan Miller. It starred Melody Moore as Mimì and Alfie Boe as Rodolfo.
This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.
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Francis: Greetings and welcome to the February edition of the Area53 Opera Chats! February being the month we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, so what’s better than discussing love?
F: Yes. Love.
T: Well, it is quintessentially opera, I suppose.
F: And we’re discussing it against a backdrop of a quintessential operatic love story, Puccini’s La Bohème, in a 2009 English National Opera production directed by the late Sir Jonathan Miller and starring Melody Moore and Alfie Boe.
T: There are so many ways to approach this particular production that talking about love feels slightly anti-climactic. Like, we could have discussed love based on any old version of La Bohème, like the one we saw a few months back. That would have been perfect.
F: I don’t disagree. Maybe we should talk about this production a little before we start to explain why?
T: Yes, please! This one was in English – obviously, it being ENO – and the translation was done by a librettist called Amanda Holden. But not that Amanda Holden. There’s a British TV celebrity by the same name, but this isn’t her.
F: If you say so.
T: She says she isn’t necessarily doing literal translations, she wants to be faithful to the spirit of what the characters are saying, if not the actual literal words. I didn’t mind the translation here at all.
F: I missed the freezing little hands, but yeah, not bad for a translated opera.
T: And I was surprised to learn that operas used to be translated into English back in the day. It was only when global travelling became easier that they started to stick to the original language. But anyway, they also said why it was set in the 1930s instead of the 1830s.
F: Care to summarize for those who didn’t watch the same behind the scenes thing you did?
T: The director said that because in those days, 1830s to 1850s, photography was brand new. You had to stand still for minutes to show up on a photo, so there aren’t really any Parisian street scene photos available where you can see how ordinary people dressed. He didn’t want the clothing styles to be kitsch and made up, he wanted realism. Instead of the 1830s they set it in 1930 during the Great Depression, when there are plenty of street scene photos where you can see how ordinary people dressed. Some staging is apparently lifted more or less straight from some famous old French photos.
F: I enjoyed the realism here, even if it was set later than originally imagined.
T: 1930s is practically 1920s, so it’s right in your favoured ballpark, no?
F: Oh yeah, for sure.
T: That probably helped.
T: The director was apparently a former medical doctor, so he also wanted realism with Mimì’s death scene. I don’t have much experience in this regard, but some of these operas when they’re dying of consumption yet they are so damn perky around it. Your lungs and body are giving up and you’re belting out arias like it’s nobody’s business? It doesn’t really gel with me.
F: Nor me, but I guess I’m used to it. Oh God, Mimì’s death broke me in this one.
T: Me too. It was really effective.
F: I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but I gotta admit I cried. Full on ugly cried, which don’t happen too frequently.
T: Yeah, I was in tears too. It was really well done. Pink berets off to the wonderful cast, and the director and scenographer.
F: All the hats off.
T: But you didn’t want to discuss death? It would seem quite fitting.
F: No, we’ll save that for another month. Opera ain’t exactly devoid of deaths. Instead I want to ask you if you believe in love at first sight?
T: Because for Mimì and Rodolfo it’s love at first sight?
F: Yes. First time they meet, there’s a spark.
T: Not for her candle! Badum-tssh!
F: Haha, no, obviously not.
T: Or the key wouldn’t “get lost” so they could flirt in the dark.
F: So, do you believe in such a thing as love at first sight?
T: Good question. I mean definitely used to when I was younger, but now I don’t know. Maybe?
F: You’ve grown more skeptical as you’ve gotten older?
T: Yeah, probably grown more skeptical in general, to be fair. Or jaded. What about you?
F: I’m younger than you are. I retain a childlike innocence.
T: Oh, haha. Very funny.
F: Why, thank you! Joking aside, I’m a romantic at heart. But I’m also a realist.
T: And what does that mean? Explain it to me like I’m five?
F: Oh no, I can’t do that. It would be really inappropriate for a five-year-old’s ears.
T: And why is that?
F: I believe in lust at first sight.
T: Right. And how does that work?
F: Or, perhaps more accurately, attraction at first sight. Don’t even have to be sexual in nature, it can be as simple as something about the other person that, umm, awakens your senses.
T: But not in a sexual way?
F: No, not at all. It’s more like your mind goes “oh, hey there.”
T: Like the person piques your interest?
F: Yes! Suddenly it’s like you’re awake and you want to get acquainted with this new person, and being in their presence is the best thing ever.
T: But not in a creepy way.
F: No, not in a creepy way.
T: Like butterflies in your tummy?
F: No, that comes later. Point I’m making is that what you’re feeling there ain’t love. It has the potential to develop into something more if it turns out you have some common ground and like each other, but sometimes your interest settles down again as soon as you start talking to them.
T: You want more than a pretty face?
F: Of course! I want someone I can talk to, you know? A partner, not a pet.
T: Some people don’t seem to fussed about that.
F: And how long do they last as a couple?
T: Probably not ‘til death does them part, if that’s what you mean.
F: That’s exactly what I mean. For it to last, you need a partner.
T: And not a pet.
F: No, for that you can get a dog. Or a cat. What I’m saying is you need a person who is more to you than a pretty face, a warm bed and company.
T: Someone you can love for the person they are, not for how good they look next to you on your Instagram selfies?
F: That’s it, yeah. And for that you gotta know them. How can you love someone you know nothing about? Because they have a nice smile? How is that love?
T: Some might say it’s easier to love a person you know nothing about. No baggage. You can easily love the idea of them when you don’t know the “warts and all” parts.
F: I think that’s more of an infatuation. Infatuations are easily awoken, and easily put back to bed.
T: Not for everyone.
F: Sure, but you can easily be infatuated with someone and then you learn more about them and the warts start showing, in a manner of speaking.
T: It can put you right off?
F: That’s the kinda thing I’m referring to, yes.
T: Love at first sight is a lovely concept, though. You catch someone’s eye and bam!, you’re a goner.
F: I maintain that you need more than that before you profess your genuine, undying love.
T: As opposed to merely having a crush on them?
F: Yes. Infatuations and crushes aside, the mistake people make is confusing this “awakening of the senses” with love. Love is what comes next if you’re lucky, but c’mon, you gotta talk to each other first, or the only thing you’re in love with is a fantasy, an idea of another person. An idea you’ve made up, more to the point.
T: Without the warts?
F: You could have imagined their warts too, because maybe you’re realistic enough to get that nobody’s perfect. No, I mean that you think that person is a certain way, and you’ve fallen in love with your imaginary version of them.
T: But not the real person?
F: No, because you actually don’t know them yet. That’s what I’m saying. Love at first sight is a misplaced fantasy.
T: What if the person lives up to the image, though? Sometimes your first impression of someone can be accurate. And what if you were predestined for each other?
F: Nevertheless, you need more than a smile to marry someone. Plenty of people make the mistake of thinking the person they meet on a first date is great, but by the second or third date you realize that you couldn’t share a life with them. Or at the very least you shouldn’t.
T: But when you know, you know, on the other hand. Like magnets, you’re drawn to each other.
F: That’s what I’m saying. You can feel that pull, sure, but you need more than that before you can call it real love. Especially if you don’t even know if it’s reciprocated.
T: But you can be in love with someone without it being reciprocated, or without them even knowing about it.
F: Ah, yeah, but I would say that’s a crush, and believe me, I’ve been there. I had developed a big ol’ crush on … hmm … what should we call her on here?
T: Who? Your fiancée?
T: Why not “Mrs F”? She is due to become “Mrs Francis”, yeah? “Mr T” is short for “Mr Traxy”.
F: True. Okay, sure, we’ll go with that. Mrs. F and I grew into friends of sorts over the course of a few years, and I didn’t want to ruin that by asking her on a date. But sometimes in life you gotta take a risk, and I figured it was better to ask and be rejected, because at least I could move on if it turned out she weren’t interested.
T: But considering you’re now engaged to be married, she clearly was?
F: Ohhh yeah. Best question I ever asked!
T: Why didn’t she ask you out if she was interested, though? I mean, it’s the 2020s, not the 1920s. If you don’t mind me asking, or strangers on the internet knowing.
F: Honestly, she didn’t think I would be interested, and that I only thought of her as a friend. She was afraid of rejection too, and like me didn’t want to risk potentially losing a friendship. But we didn’t lose a friendship at all, we still have that, and we’ve both gained a partner for life. And hey, we might get a pet too!
T: 10 out of 10, would recommend a pet. I’m glad things worked out for you both in the end.
F: Thank you, I appreciate that. We both do.
T: At what point did you know she was truly The One?
F: When we kissed and it felt like coming home.
T: Wow, you are a romantic!
F: My opera obsession didn’t give that away already?!
T: Well, okay, yeah, maybe a little.
F: So when did you know Mr. T was Mr. Right?
T: When he was driving me back to the airport after my first visit to Nottingham, and I suddenly started crying because it felt wrong to leave. Not the country, but him specifically. I didn’t want to be without him.
F: At that point you were still living in Sweden?
F: So how long before you met him again?
T: Ah, like a couple of weeks maybe? I was over for a bit, then went back home, then he came to visit for a week or so … and that was the summer, and by mid-October I moved to Nottingham to be with him. We have rarely been apart since.
F: I love that.
T: And when we saw The Day After Tomorrow at the cinema, and I thought “if the apocalypse comes, this is the person I would want to spend my last moments with”.
F: Aww, I love that even more! Was it love at first sight?
T: We met online, so not quite. I didn’t even know what he looked like at that point.
F: Oh, I thought it was a dating site or something?
T: Nooo. I had been chatting to this British guy for a bit, because we shared some interests and frequented the same forum. One day he introduced me to a friend he thought I might like.
F: Which you obviously did!
T: Yup. The friend who introduced us was the Best Man at the wedding.
F: How long you guys been married now?
T: Oh, umm. Years? Not to get too specific, but I mean, we’ve had our two cats for over ten years now, and we got married a few years before that. Heck, we’ve lived in this house for a surprising amount of years now. When we recently got rid of a car that was gathering moss on the drive it was a shock to realise we bought that car 16 years ago!
F: That’s a grand old age for any car.
T: Yeah, it needed a lot doing to it. Far more than it was worth, so we finally decided to scrap it. It’s a shame I had two of the tyres replaced a few years ago, because if I had known the car was hardly going to be driven after that I wouldn’t have bothered! But then we didn’t exactly know there was going to be a global pandemic which meant working remotely and neither of us going anywhere.
F: But the marriage survived the pandemic, even if the car didn’t.
T: True that.
F: That’s the main thing. You could say the car went the way of Mimì.
T: Not really. It didn’t dramatically give up the ghost, it just ran out of battery after not being driven for months and months until we got someone to come winch it onto a recovery truck and take it to the scrap yard. But if you’re trying to relate back to the opera, then yeah, I guess you could say it went the way of Mimì. Mr T didn’t stand around singing about his coat while waiting for the car to be winched on to the recovery truck, though.
F: Ah, but did you?
T: No, I had a Marie Kondo moment and thanked it for our adventures over the years.
F: You got rid of it because it no longer sparked joy?
T: Well, no, that was kind of the point. It was a moss-gathering eyesore and we just needed it gone.
F: La Bohème will always spark joy.
T: I think so too.
F: The music is as beautiful now as it was over a hundred years ago when it was written.
T: The love story never has a happy ending, but that’s probably what makes it so memorable. Even Cher is moved to tears when Nicholas Cage takes her to see it at the Met in Moonstruck.
F: Great film. I have some problems with it, but great film.
T: I can see why you’d enjoy it.
F: You should write Moonstruck review some time, you know.
T: I’ve definitely considered it.
F: Good! Now, we don’t seem too convinced about love at first sight here, but would you agree it’s useful in storytelling?
T: Absolutely. It makes for excellent books, films and of course opera.
F: So that we can definitely agree on. I gotta run, but until next time, remember to feel the love and why not tell someone you love them if you ain’t done that in a while?
T: Good idea.
F: A presto!