My First Opera: La Bohème

It’s been awhile since I’ve been so moved by things that I think should be moving. I appreciate a powerful dance piece, an impressionist painting. I can respect an artist’s technique and I do my best to be informed about his/her body of work and the climate (historical, political, cultural, etc.) that he/she creates in. But I can’t remember the last time I was moved to tears while sitting in a velvet theater chair at The Met Opera House or while walking through its sister institution across Central Park.

On October 1st, I saw my first opera — The Met’s La Bohème — and it will not be my last. According to the program notes, “it has a marvelous ability to make a powerful first impression (even to those new to opera).” So, the show was appropriate for a novice. (Is it even called a “show” in the opera world? In dance, “show” and “performance” are permissible, but good luck asking a ballerina how her “recital” went.)

Operas might be called the original musicals, and I’ve written about my problem with musicals before: about how silly it is that the word “linen” would be belted with such fervor and air expenditure. We could spare the many minutes it takes to get out a scene’s meaning if the words were emitted sans musicality.

David Bizic, Susanna Phillips, Ryan Speedo Green, Ailyn Pérez, Dmytro Popov and Rodion Pogossov (bottom). Credit Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

La Bohème had its “linen” moments. Dmytro Popov, David Bizic, Ailyn Pérez, and Susanna Phillips ,as the four main characters (Rudolfo, Marcello, Mimi, Musetta, respectively), sang jokes about barbers and herrings. And, since I know zero Italian and had only had the translation to go on, I couldn’t associate any impressively trilled syllables with corresponding words. Thus, I was tickled imagining the soprano belt out “bonnet” with such estimable lung power.

Indeed, it would have been a different experience had I understood Italian. In the end, it didn’t matter. Actually, even in the beginning it didn’t matter. Even as I thought of how absurd it is that two people would fall in love within minutes of meeting, the tears fell as Ailyn Pérez’s soaring voice sang of Mimi’s embroidered flowers. Even as I registered the cliché (or what has become the cliché) of the starving artist Bohemian life and compared the opera to its modern interpretation Rent (which I saw long before I knew its plot wasn’t original), I felt the warming blush of attraction and, later, the sting of snow on feverish skin.

Now I’m getting poetic. But La Bohème’s poetry is its point. I can cry about love abstractly: the beauty of love itself, not a specific love in my life. When it comes to death, however, my imagination takes over; the tears inspired by the cast’s sorrowful syllables were shed over images of my own loved ones on their deathbeds.

Perhaps what I must learn for my next opera is to let death be abstract, too. To let art’s transcendent ideals be external — eternalized in painting, lyrics, and movement. To glean emotion with superimposing my own experience. To be moved without having it be personal.

Would another opera have had the same effect on me? The stunning set design embodying Paris’s rooftops was an instant attraction. I recently saw those rooftops myself for the first time. Did La Bohème resonate more than other operas would have because I glamourize Paris and the starving artist lifestyle? Because I fancy myself a Bohemian writer? Is that something to aspire to since, in effect, it amounts to poverty?

I believe art and its lofty ideals are worth devoting your life to. But how not to taint it, dilute it, burden it, with the mediocrity of actual living?

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