Opera - La Vie Boheme

Atlanta Opera stages Puccini classic

So there's this guy I sometimes bump into at Atlanta Opera events. If it's a performance, he's in a tux, opening night or no. He's an American, but he spent many years working in Europe where men wore tails and women fancy gowns when attending the opera. Invariably, he complains to me that people no longer dress up for the opera. He tells me this even when I'm tieless and the top few buttons of my shirt are undone.

I'm tempted to go to the Atlanta Opera's production of La Boheme in torn pants and flip-flops ... maybe a spattered painter's smock. I'll raise my peacock quill and shout out from the cheap seats, "Long live the Bohemians!" Then I'll come up with something Dadaesque to do, like march along the balcony with a baguette doubling as a drum major's baton.

I say this assuming there are still Bohemians among us to whom I can wish a long life, a premise that maybe needs examining. (I say it also as someone who hasn't had to sit in the cheap seats for quite some time.)

Do we even have a true Bohemian culture in the world today? "No," says director Bliss Hebert, who says what passes for Bohemian today is just drug culture. True Bohemians, he says, are "people who are really trying to find their lives, not escape their lives."

Hebert and conductor Ward Holmquist have put together a straightforward production of Puccini's masterfully crafted story of poorly dressed, impoverished Parisian artists painting, falling in love, writing, falling out of love, playing music, falling back in love and then dying. (Hey, it's opera. Stick with musicals if you want a happy ending.) No post-modern reconstructions, no Boheme:1990 (Rent having already taken care of that).

The story that made Cher cry in Moonstruck centers on the love between Rodolfo, a writer, and Mimi, who embroiders artificial flowers and is slowly dying of consumption, that most romantic of terminal diseases. The two meet on Christmas Eve in the room Rodolfo shares with Marcello, a painter; Colline, a philosopher; and Schaunard, a musician.

Materially poor, these Bohemians lead rich, exuberant, playful lives, caring more for their friends and their chosen arts than for fancy clothes and respectable positions. Liberated from the restraints of polite society, they mock Musetta - Marcello's on-again, off-again lover - when she takes up with Alcindoro, an old wealthy man, and starts wearing fancy dresses. And Musetta herself has no patience for Alcindoro's obsession with decorum and appearances.

"I live in my happy poverty," sings Rodolfo. "I squander like a prince my poems and songs of love ... I'm a millionaire in spirit." Happy poverty: That's pretty much the Bohemian manifesto, don't you think? Joy through passionate creative pursuits instead of material gain and hording. Oh, there are hints that these artists come from places of means. Rodolfo speaks of a rich uncle, and all the men have somehow managed to get an education. There's perhaps an element of choice to their poverty that of course makes all the difference.

But still, they write, paint, dance, clown around, sing quadrilles of nonsense syllables for the love of the art itself, not with dreams of fame and riches. They do it all in worn overcoats, hungry and shivering (hence the dying part) because they can't afford wood for the fireplace. When Mimi nears death, the others sell their meager possessions to buy her medicine and a muff to warm her hands.

So here's what maybe we should do: Let's all show up in threadbare clothes - the real stuff, not some "distressed" fake vintage outfit you paid a bundle for at Urban Outfitters. In Act III, someone will conduct a sing-along. Then afterward, no fancy cocktails. We'll just grab a few boxes of wine from Publix and drink it from plastic glasses at whoever's apartment is closest. And anyone who shows up in a tux gets stuck with the bill.


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