The four acts of Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème” (1896), an operatic staple, will be presented with a twist at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA: they’ll be in reverse order.
Set in 1830s Paris, the original La bohème follows the love story of a sickly seamstress, Mimi, and a poet, Rodolfo. Their friends Shaunard, a musician, Marcello, a painter, Colline, a philosopher, and Musetta, a singer, are supporting characters in the tragic love story. The two fall in love on a bitterly cold winter night, and Mimi accompanies Rodolfo and his friends to a cafe. Rodolfo feigns jealousy so Mimi will leave him and find a wealthy man to help her, as he fears she is dying of consumption (tuberculosis). Mimi leaves Rodolfo for a wealthy viscount but returns, weak and sickly, to see him. She then falls asleep and dies and Rodolfo sobs as the opera ends.
As La bohème is one of the most performed operas globally, the slow march to Mimi’s death is familiar and not really a spoiler. In the reversed order, Mimi dies at the beginning and her relationship with Rodolfo is reflected back. Conductor Kensho Watanabe wanted to capture the immediacy and desperation of Mimi’s death right away.
“We need to capture that, knowing that now we don’t have an hour and a half of music leading up to it,” said Watanabe. “We’re thrust right into the lowest point of their lives, which makes the arch of going back to the moment they fall in love much more optimistic and positive.”
The idea to flip the story came about 12 years ago in a conversation between director Yuval Sharon and Tony-nominated set designer John Conklin. The idea stuck with Sharon until he could bring it to life with the Detroit Opera this year. Because Spoleto has adventurous programming, Puccini’s tame repertoire has not often made it into the festival. After Sharon sent Nigel Redden, general director of the festival, a playlist of the opera in reverse order, he was convinced this unconventional version of a classic would fit right in.
Beginning the opera in total anguish and finishing completely in love is a tall order for actors Lauren Michelle (Mimi) and Matthew White (Rodolfo). White performed the reverse order with the Detroit Opera in April of this year with Brandie Sutton (Musetta), and Benjamin Taylor (Schaunard). Joining the cast for the Spoleto run is Michelle, Troy Cook (Marcello), and Calvin Griffin (Colline).
“The first day of rehearsal is like the first day of school,” said Watanabe. “There is a level of teamwork and camaraderie that happens immediately. What I love about being on a project like this is getting to spend time with the people I’m working with. It feeds into the level of chemistry onstage.”
Operatic performances like this are also different from the symphonic projects Watanabe conducts around the world. An interdisciplinary artist, he enjoys the spontaneity of the live performances after the groundwork is laid in rehearsals. As conductor, Watanabe must plan the arch of the show with the stamina of the performers in mind. Adjusting the score to flow in reverse order only required a few added transitions. The end of act one is one of the most iconic moments in the opera, and now placed at the end, it leaves a challenge to pace the show successfully.
“The beauty is that every night can be very different,” said Watanabe. “I love that I have this chance to be really flexible, to have this nonverbal communication throughout the night with all the performers on stage. That’s what really excites me about being an opera conductor.”
This new version attracts a new audience to the opera as well. In Detroit, Sharon said more than half the audience was first-time operagoers.
“It’s almost like a murder mystery,” said Sharon. “How did that happen? Why did they choose this particular path? Working backwards reveals that, it gives it a sense of mystery and unpredictability that is refreshing for people that might be coming to opera for the first time.”
“For me, it’s about shaking up our conventional listening habits,” said Sharon. “Listening to it in a new order reveals so much about the piece that, even if you know it well, there is so much to discover.”
La bohème runs May 28-June 11 at the Charleston Gaillard Center. Tickets start at $45. To order tickets or for more information, visit spoletousa.org.
Nat Bono is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.