Reno, NV 89501
My favorite hobby is learning to appreciate and enjoy different kinds of music. In nearly 30 years devoted to this particular pursuit, nothing else has challenged my sensibilities quite as much as opera. The dramatic style of singing always struck me as overwrought and therefore insincere. But while watching a rehearsal of Nevada Opera’s production of the Giacomo Puccini 1896 opera La Bohème, the key to opera appreciation suddenly occurred to me: You need to see it live.
On record, over the radio, on TV—these settings fail to convey the catharsis of a tragic narrative expressed through booming voices. But in the theater, combined with interesting sets and costumes, the dramatic power of the music is palpable. The voices projected from the stage achieve a raw emotional intimacy that belies the theatrical nature of the music.
La Bohème, which opens on Friday, April 24 at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, is the perfect opera for a neophyte. It’s one of the most popular operas in the world, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a classic and familiar story—the story of estranged lovers was the inspiration for the musical Rent and, loosely, the movie Moonstruck. It has compelling characters—doesn’t everybody want to hang out with Parisian artists? And its accessible music touches on a wide range of emotions—humor and pathos and, most especially, romance.
“Everybody has a different reaction to it,” says Nevada Opera’s artistic director Michael Borowitz. “Couples out on a date tend to really like it for the romantic side. Our more senior population appreciates it purely for the music.”
Based on stories by French author Henri Murger, La Bohème made Puccini’s reputation. “It’s really what solidified his role as the successor to Verdi,” says Borowitz. “It’s been sealed in the top 10 list ever since. It’s never not being performed.”
These performances will be a bit of a comeback for Nevada Opera, who launched a successful fund-raising campaign earlier this year after canceling planned performances of The Circus Princess because of budget woes.
The story centers on a group of young bohemians. Not geographical Bohemians—this is 19th century Paris, not Prague—but conceptual bohemians. Young, carefree, impoverished artistic types. More specifically, the focus of the story is—spoiler alert—the doomed romance between the young writer Rodolfo and the deathly ill Mimì.
“It’s the perfect part for a soprano,” says Suzanne Woods, who portrays Mimì opposite her real-life husband John Pickle as Rodolfo. “I get to be giddy, I get to be tender, and I get to die at the end—which is always fun onstage.”
The opera explores the camaraderie among young artists and intellectuals, and the way that illness can threaten a relationship—but not as much as doubt and insecurity. The music is, by turns, jaunty and forlorn. It’s striking the way it uses melody to express character and music to explore a story and a wide range emotions. In fact, there’s only one other genre I know of that manages as fluent a combination of music, character and narrative as opera does—and that’s rap music.