October 25, 2015

What Mimi is really saying in her first aria

I think most opera-lovers take Mimi's famous aria "Mi chiamano Mimi" at face value.

"La Grisette" by Constantin Guys
That's a mistake.

Because Mimi is 1) likeable and 2) doomed, opera-lovers tend to over-romanticize her. Most of you out there want -- no, need -- this young woman to be as sweet, loving, loyal, demure and guileless as she appears on the surface as she steps into Rodolfo's apartment. But it's important to bear in mind that this is one of Puccini's most verismo operas. Verismo, you'll recall, means "truth". For composers of the turn-of-the-century "nuova scuola" movement in Italian opera (such as Mascagni and Leoncavallo), this meant NO MORE FAIRY-TALE OPERAS.

No more dashing, brave, virtuous, noble tenor heroes.

No more black-hearted, purely-evil baritone villains.

And no more sweet, chaste, maidenly, faithful soprano heroines.

"People aren't perfect; we're all a messy conglomeration of good AND bad impulses", the verismo composers are saying.

In the case of Mimi, she is actually a fairly typical example of a type of19th-century working girl known as a grisette. (Click on the link for a bit of history.) Of course, opportunities for women were lamentably limited in the 1800's. A college education was a fantasy, as was a career in business, law or medicine. Women either found themselves a husband or, like Eliza Doolittle, aspired to a position in a flower shop, hat shop, or the like. But if you think we have salary inequality in 2015, imagine the pay scale for females in 1830! It wasn't enough to live on. So the working girls of Paris learned the cardinal rule of urban living: Do whatever you have to do to survive.

For the grisettes (so named because they tended to wear simple gray dresses), this often meant making oneself available to be picked up by a young man at a tavern or other gathering-place with the goal of getting him to buy her a meal. If he did, she would spend the evening with him, laughing at his jokes, going along with his plans, with one clear understanding:

There was a sexual quid pro quo to come.

At the end of the evening, she would repay his largesse by returning to his place and sleeping with him. The grisette's sexuality was an asset to be leveraged for the necessities of daily life. With that bit of social history as our frame of reference, let's examine the Mimi of Act 1.

I believe it's no coincidence that she happens to knock on Rodolfo's door immediately after the other three bohemians depart for the Latin Quarter. She's been waiting for such a moment, hoping to find "the cute one" alone in the garrett. Surely the ploy of her candle having gone out is rather flimsy; in fact, once he re-lights it, we see her deliberately blow it out again to prolong her visit. When Rodolfo offers her some wine, she doesn't say "No, no, thanks, nothing for me"; she takes it with no hesitation.  Now let's see what occurs in her great aria.

Rodolfo, remember, has just finished his "who am I?" monologue. Among other things, he states that he is a poet, and that, although poor, he is rich in dreams, fancies, and castles in the air. (And you thought that was an American English expression!)

When it's Mimi's return to talk, she says the following, explaining her fondness for flowers:
"I like those things that ... speak of dreams and of fancies; those things with the name of poetry".

Translation: "You like dreams and fancies? ME TOO! You like poetry? ME TOO!" Gee, what a co-inky-dink.

She continues:
"I make my meals alone, by myself." Translation: I'm available. No boyfriend. No competition for you.
"I don't always go to Mass," Translation: I'm not one of those goody-goody prudes; I'll "put out".
"But I often pray to the Lord." Translation: ...But I'm a nice girl; I'm not a slutty whore.
"I live alone. All alone." Translation: Again - no boyfriend. Gee whiz, I'm lonely and unattached.

And then comes a little line that seems insignificant, but I think is incredibly significant!
"There, in (my) little white room, I look over the roofs and into the sky."

What's the big deal about that, you ask? Think back to the opening moments of Act 1, after Marcello declares he's going to drown a Pharaoh. He asks Rodolfo what he's doing (since he's not doing any writing), and his friend answers:
"I'm looking out at the gray skies and the thousand smoking chimnies of Paris"... etc.

Mimi has just paraphrased Rodolfo's opening line!

WAS SHE EAVESDROPPING AT THE GARRETT DOOR THE WHOLE TIME, WAITING TIL RODOLFO WAS ALONE? Ducking into the shadows when Colline and Schaunard came along?

Not impossible!

That she's a grisette with a plan becomes even more apparent in the final moments of the act. Consider: after the great duet of "O soave fanciulla", Rodolfo plants a kiss on her. She protests. He makes another pass at her.

She firmly says "Your friends are waiting". (Translation: no dinner, no sex.)

He thinks she's telling him to go on by himself. Shyly but insistently, Mimi says she was hoping she could go with him. She just invited herself to Christmas dinner at his expense.

He suggests they stay inside and (obviously) make out.

She demures.

Then, a very transactional, business-like exchange:

HIM: And when we return?:
HER: (teasingly) Aren't you curious!

Translation: "Yes, I will sleep with you."

Now, if you like your sopranos innocent and maidenly and you're inclined to scoff at my interpretation, let me remind you: by Act 4, Mimi has moved on. She's in the company of a wealthy nobleman, riding in a luxurious carriage, dressed to the nines. She has moved on up the survival-by-prostitution ladder of 1830's Paris and become either a Lorette (a "kept woman") or a full-fledged Courtesan a la Violetta Valery or her real-life model, Marie Duplessis. Her embroidery days are behind her; she found a way to survive until tuberculosis ended her ascent.

This much I'll give you, you Romantics: yes, at the end she came to realize that she did, in fact, love Rodolfo, in spite of his immaturity, jealousy and other flaws. In a wonderful bit of dramatic symmetry recalling how, in Act 1, she waited until she could be alone with Rodolfo to introduce herself, in Act 4 she waits until all the bohemians have left on their various errands to open her eyes and ask Sono andati? (Are they gone?) Now she wants them to be alone to tell Rodolfo that he truly is the love of her life.

That's the thing about a terminal illness; about facing one's own mortality.

It makes you grow up fast; it makes you assess what remains of your life and come to grips with the things that matter most.


  1. I agree with this theory, and go further to say that she is cautious, rather than demure; there should be an undercurrent of fear that her plan may be discovered. This could be interpreted based on the ambiance created from the opening of her aria. Excellent commentary. Thank you.

  2. Yes, this is truly verismo: !9th; 20th and 21st time frames. And always Romantic. bravo! thank you.

  3. THANK YOU! This is the kind of perspective I strive for as a singer, using history and logic in order to yield refreshing context and interpretation. I'm thrilled/relieved to see a like-minded colleague in the biz!

  4. I will never see nor hear Mimi with the perspective I had all my life after reading this! Gone is the simple, impoverished, romantic Mimi forever. So plausible, this rendering of her persona. No please don't tell me that Turandot is a nice girl...

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  6. I had a huge revelation when I worked on Mimi again after singing in MERRY WIDOW. I realized, "Oh, 'Mimi' is her grisette name!!" (as in Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou, Frou-frou, Clo-clo...). Although she certainly doesn't have the luxury of being a true romantic due to her financial situation and her illness, I do think she is genuinely seeking Rodolfo for companionship rather than for a simple business transaction. She is no doubt aware that he is poor, and if she were looking for a sugar-daddy, she obviously has better options. I actually find her rather heroic, in that she is willing to be emotionally invested when she knows she may not even make it through the winter. That's why "il primo bacio dell'aprile è mio!" had such poignancy for me: although her life was difficult, she was always deeply grateful to see spring again. Death and the gutter were always a reality for her, but she lived in the garret, as close to heaven as possible. I respected her practicality, but I also admired her vulnerability and desire for something beyond mere survival.

  7. In a condescendingly “folksy” style all too prevalent in American attempts to democratize opera, you tell us what Mimì is “really” like. I beg to differ.
    “La Bohème” is decidedly not “one of Puccini’s most ‛verismo’ operas,” as you claim; nor does “verismo” mean “truth,” but “realism.” Operatic verismo, reflecting the new realism of the spoken stage, disdained chivalric characters and period costumes in favor of peasants or the working class in contemporary settings, typically with violent action. But the term’s meaning has been expanded to include all operas written in the vocal style of the post-Verdian Italian composers, who replaced the decorated lines of bel canto with a more declamatory style, often impelling performers to sacrifice beautiful singing to the needs of character. Yet most of the so-called verismo composers produced only one opera each that strictly belongs to the genre. Puccini’s is “Il tabarro”; “La Bohème” offers humor, affection and sincere pathos rather than brutal, slice-of-life realism. And of his other operas, “Manon Lescaut,” “Tosca” and “Turandot”—with, respectively, a brave tenor of noble birth, a black-hearted baritone in a powdered wig, and two sopranos, one very chaste and one very loyal, in an exotic fairytale setting—all come closer, in the style of their vocal writing, to verismo than does “La Bohème.”
    And what is the “face value” at which audiences presumably take Mimì’s aria? Whose hypocrisies do you wish to expose? Those of Mimì, for using subtle charm to signal her emotional—and possibly physical—availability to a man she finds attractive? Or is Puccini the culprit, whitewashing, with warmly lyrical music, a calculating gold-digger’s hawking of her sexual wares?
    When Rodolfo proposes that Mimì remain with him at home, Mimì “demures” (no, sir, she “demurs”). “No dinner, no sex,” you coarsely translate for us. But if Mimì were hustling a dinner, she would have ordered more than just “la crema,” no? And were she as mercenary as, say, Manon, she would have set her sights on a customer more solvent than Rodolfo.
    Yes, she may have timed her arrival to catch the poet alone, and blown out her candle and dropped her key to prolong her visit. But her “Grazie” to his offer of wine, coming immediately after she has declined to sit near the fire, sounds more like “thank you for the offer” than unhesitating acceptance, especially as she allows him to pour only half a glass, from which she takes a single sip before rising to look for her candle and depart. Later, her admission that she shares his fondness for the poetry life has to offer can hardly be called disingenuous, given her love for flowers, real and embroidered, and, three acts later, her ability, even on her deathbed, to correct the poet’s inapt metaphor.
    Yes, Puccini’s librettists knew—as did Mimì—that women’s financial survival often depended on the “protection” of men and that sex could well be part of such an arrangement. And yes, in the fourth act we learn that Mimì has been living with a wealthy viscount. But we don’t know that she left Rodolfo specifically for the viscount and his money: she and Rodolfo, like Musetta and Marcello, had often quarreled and later reconciled, and Rodolfo’s jealousy, which needed little or no provocation, had driven Mimì away before. We know only that the wealthier lover won her after she and the poet had separated—which by no means makes her a venal woman.
    So Mimì does not need your unctuous forgiveness for the life of prostitution you accuse her of having led. The testimony, even of the libretto alone, is too flimsy to justify your slut-shaming of one of the most appealing heroines in the entire lyric repertory.
    Which brings me to my final point: one cannot discuss the character of Mimì—or any figure in opera—without reference to her music, of which your article mentions not a single note. As Maria Callas pointed out, if we listen, with the mind as well as the heart, to the music, the composer tells us everything we need to know about a character. Dr. Opera, you weren’t listening very well.

    1. My god, this whitewashing Mr. Christoph and others engage in is so tiresome! What are you trying to protect, your eight-year-old version of romance? I find it hilarious that if you confront Puccini acolytes with the textual facts of who their characters are, based on lyrics and dramatic choices, they recoil in horror. Mimi might be trying to feed herself. Tosca is an informer who can't be trusted past her confessor, never mind the secret police. Pinkerton is a gigantic prick. Calaf is a sociopath. Rodolfo isn't as warm-hearted as his music makes him sound. Orrore! We can't have that, since the music is so pretty.

      "La Bohème” offers humor, affection and sincere pathos rather than brutal, slice-of-life realism."

      Right, because grinding poverty and disease aren't "real."

      "The testimony, even of the libretto alone, is too flimsy to justify your slut-shaming of one of the most appealing heroines in the entire lyric repertory."

      Appealing to whom? Mimi bores the crap out of me, and I can't be the only one. Who are you trying to save her for? Future generations as muddled in their thinking as you are?

      "Which brings me to my final point: one cannot discuss the character of Mimì—or any figure in opera—without reference to her music, of which your article mentions not a single note. As Maria Callas pointed out, if we listen, with the mind as well as the heart, to the music, the composer tells us everything we need to know about a character. Dr. Opera, you weren’t listening very well."

      No, it is you who are allowing the music to run riot over the transactional realities of that place and time. Puccini couldn't bear to write anything less than beautiful melodies for his romantic heroes, so those of us who care must fill in the blanks with textual evidence, or shrug and present yet another virginal, head-ducking Mimi. Apparently, that's what you want because textual and dramatic complexity drives you nuts.

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  9. Bravo Emily and Thom! Your sensible, sensitive, and well informed comments certainly restore some balance to the inaccuracies, misunderstandings, and outright mistranslations of Dr. Opera. I always felt that Mimì's life, and indeed, the life of all the characters in the opera, was remarkably modern in tone and therefor particularly easy for modern interpreters to understand. There were class gradations in the 19th century demi-monde described in Henri Murget's book and portrayed so wonderfully through the music and libretto of Puccini's score, but it needs to be understood that, whether higher (Violetta Valéry) or lower, within that rather special environment, judgment was not being passed on Mimì and women like her for the relationships they formed, any more than we pass judgment today on a young unwed woman who has a physical as well as romantic relationship with her boyfriend, nor do we assume she is prostituting herself morally or financially by doing so. While society has changed format considerably since Murget's and Puccini's time time, the contemporary quality of their thinking and their sophistication both societal and on a personal level are familiar to us today.

  10. I can see some good points on both sides of this discussion. Certainly Mimi cannot be played as a pure, innocent being, but there is also some poetry in her soul and quite a fair amount of dignity. All I will add is, while walking the streets of Manhattan and listening to this aria, it startled me to think that during the time of this opera, the rich people would all want their home to be as close to the ground as possible, as stairs would be the only access to the top floors, and climbing those stairs would be below the dignityof the wealthy class. Flash forward 100 years, and with the advent of the elevator, the modern rich person values the penthouse as the ultimate in luxury. How sad to think that another Mimi can never experience the hope that Puccini's Mimi felt, living in her apartment above all the other rooftops. She was allowed to see the sun before everyone else as a result of her poverty. Perhaps I am too sentimental, but that seems a tragedy in and of itself.