October 11, 2015

What were YOUR La bohème moments?

Au revoir, Orpheus - you sold more tickets than I thought you would - atta boy. Enjoy Hades til next time.
Bohemian garret in Paris?
Sort of - my apartment in Bloomington Indiana 45 years ago.

Next up for Virginia Opera is the perennially popular tear-jerker, La bohème. It's not the greatest opera ever written, nor is it my personal favorite. However, I challenge you to find a higher level of craftsmanship in any opera! This is the operatic art put into practice with near flawless skill. There are moments in Bohème that are breathtaking in the economical use of materials to project psychology and character through music. My next several posts will be Bohème-centric, as I want those of you Faithful Readers who admire the opera to be aware of more than the surface attractiveness of the music.

Question: why is it so popular? Because of the arias? Because of that brilliant aria-cum-ensemble known as "Musetta's Waltz"? Because of the festive gaiety of the Latin Quarter scene? Because of the humor?

I think it's because Puccini succeeded in making us see ourselves in the characters on stage. We empathize with the four bohemians and the two women who join their circle as with few other opera characters. Igor Stravinsky, who held other Puccini operas in contempt, said of La 
bohème that even he left the theater "whistling my lost youth". I feel you, Igor!

I definitely see myself throughout this drama. I watch what the characters experience, and it hits home: that's me up there. Here's what I mean:

Do you remember the moment when it first occurred to you that your childhood was over, and it was time to grow up? Maybe it was upon the death of a parent, or your first job, or the birth of your first child. For Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, Schaunard and Musetta, it was the death of Mimi: the first moment when they were forced to face mortality, with the related epiphany that they themselves were not immortal.

Did you ever wonder how you were going to pay the next month's rent when you were a young adult?

Did you ever experience a painful break-up with a youthful boyfriend or girlfriend? One that now, years later, you look back on with nostalgia?

Were you, as a young person, ever irresponsible about money?

Did you ever spend an uncomfortable day or two if, due to fiscal immaturity, your heat or water got turned off?

When you were a young adult, did you experience hardships that you laughed about and regarded as a lark? Hardships which now would be intolerable?

Did you think you would be famous some day when you were a student?

Did you ever move from the country or a small town to the big city, and revel in the crowds and the lifestyle?

Then this is your opera.

Here were MY Bohème moments:

In his aria "Che gelida manina", Rodolfo refers to his "happy poverty" (poverta lieta), going on to say that despite having nothing, he feels like a "great lord" (un gran signore). At the beginning of their affair, he and Mimi are happy, in spite of his poverty. 

When I was an undergraduate, I screwed up my nerve and asked a pretty girl out on a date. She was a voice major there at Indiana University; we were classmates. I had a raging crush on her. Her name was Barb. We went to a movie, and I had no car, nor enough cash for a cab. So we walked to the theater. No big deal - it was a nice evening. When the movie ended, we were greeted with a deluge of drenching rain. No cab. There was nothing for it except to walk all the way back to the dorm. 

If that happened now, it would be a disaster. But we were not yet out of our teens, and we merrily sloshed through puddles, laughing and holding hands. This was poverta lieta indeed. 

As for bittersweet break-ups....   well, three or four years later....  er... Barb dumped me. We broke up as friends. And just as Rodolfo sang with melancholy nostalgia in Act 4 "Oh Mimi, you will never return again", mooning about her pretty hands and so on, I vividly remember going to a Music Literature class the next day: there sat Barb, looking absolutely and unattainably radiant. I mooned.

Now, having been happily married for thirty-nine years, I wonder who ended up bearing Rodolfo's children.

Was there a Benoit in my college days? You bet there was. Benoit, of course, is the cranky landlord who nearly ruins the bohemians' Christmas Eve by barging in and demanding the three months of rent they owe him. Boy-oh-boy, does THAT ring a bell! I, too, shared an apartment off-campus at Indiana with three other "starving artists" (i.e., fellow piano majors). One day I came home from class to discover our apartment door padlocked! One of my room-mates' checks had bounced for the second month in a row.

Did I think I'd be a famous artist one day? Of course!. I wasn't at the World's Greatest Music School to become a nobody, duh. I love how Rodolfo constantly tells anyone who'll listen that he's a poet, though every time we see him "writing", he gets absolutely nothing done, either staring out over the Paris rooftops or realizing he's "not in the mood", or blaming his bad pen. I seriously question if he's got the discipline to become a writer. Maybe he'll be a teacher and introduce small children to poetry. Me? I went from wallowing in my own virtuosity in the music of Liszt and Rachmaninoff to...

....writing this blog. And composing short operas for children. And teaching classes about opera. Famous? Not so much. Which is fine; I don't think I was cut out for "greatness". It's too hard.

As for being irresponsible about money, hoo-boy. I hate for you to think less of me, but the truth is that there were times in college when, let's say, my checking account balance was at $3.87 and I needed cash for the weekend. I would go to the Student Union and cash a check for $25.00, knowing full well it would bounce and there would be a hefty penalty fee imposed by the bank. I looked at it (oh, shame) as a high-interest loan. <Sigh>

Here's one more Bohème moment in my life. The memory still makes me cringe, though you might smile. 

I remember the moment when my childhood ended, or at least when that process began. I don't recall exactly how old I was on this particular Halloween night back in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois; let's just say I was no longer a little kid. Maybe twelve - in that ballpark.

I was on the fence about whether or not to go trick-or-treating. I sensed that I might be too old, but after some deliberation decided to head out through the neighborhood one more time. Hey, some Milk Duds and Tootsie Rolls are always welcome, and I was down a couple of quarts of chocolate.

I got to one particular house five or six blocks away, and when the door opened, my face went beet red and all my internal organs began sinking to my ankles.

The person giving out candy was a boy in my class at school. D'OH! Yeah, it was time to stop doing childish things. Lesson learned.

This is what I always feel when, in the first half of Act IV, the four bohemians start "cutting up" with "hilalrious hi-jinks and madcap capers", dancing minuets and horsing around with sword-fights. These antics always feel forced and artificial to me, especially after all they've been through by this time. Perhaps you, like me, find yourself thinking "ENOUGH, BOYS! This is getting old - GROW UP."

And perhaps - just perhaps - you see yourself up there. If you do, then La bohème has a meaning for you that Il Trovatore or Carmen or Das Rheingold can never have, for all their greatness. It you have unusual affection for Puccini's tale, maybe all this explains why. 

Next week: the Yin and Yang of Puccini's vision.

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