We are at an awkward crossroads in our relationship with Bohemia. The demographic that defines La Vie Bohème for us was the modernist poets and painters populating the left bank of Paris in the 1880s. Even they identified themselves by their lifestyle deprivations as much as their artistic practices. The recession of 2008, and the Occupy Wall Street movement it gave birth to, highlighted the naiveté of this Bohemian ideal in a contemporary context. Bohemia assumes a choice— that its practitioners have the luxury of choosing to eschew a comfortable life for the sake of their artistic ideals. Mimi intersects with, but is not a part of, this specific world.
Mimi’s story could happen now. She is part of the gig economy, a full-time side-hustler, a freelance seamstress working from home in a large city. In the America of the last ten years, where our Bohème is set, it is completely feasible that someone like Mimi could die in her twenties of a treatable illness. The anti-vaccine movement has precipitated outbreaks of measles and whooping cough. The Affordable Care Act is a work in progress that is now under acute threat. Someone like Mimi probably doesn’t have health insurance. She probably doesn’t have the cash to pay out of pocket. Someone like Mimi is not an artist. Yet, she lives the same lifestyle as the Bohemians who are.
One of the most interesting things to me about directing this opera is the tension between its score and libretto, and the novella by Henri Murger on which they were based. While Puccini’s opera romanticizes the Bohemians, the novella pokes fun at them, wryly and fondly at the start, and quite pointedly at the end. Its last paragraph shows Marcello telling Rodolfo: "I willingly consent to look back upon the past, but it must be through a good bottle of wine and seated in a comfortable easy chair. Ah, what do you want me to say? That I am corrupted? I no longer care for anything but what is good and comfortable." The libretto of Puccini’s opera romanticizes something that has been replaced by a performative version of itself— by neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Allston, by artisanal beard groomers, kombucha-cocktail-making tutorials, and $18 kimchi grilled cheeses. The rock musical Rent made this point very effectively in 1996. For both Rent’s characters and Puccini’s Bohemians, their lifestyle itself was an act of protest against bourgeois values of conformity, sexual oppression and materialism. Today, protest by lifestyle no longer makes a very noticeable impact. So our Bohemians will inhabit an actual protest— we don’t know exactly against what. Like Occupy Wall Street, their agenda isn’t ever clearly defined, other than by opposition to the status quo.
It is my theory that Murger might have cynically found Puccini’s opera an oversimplification of his loving satire of a knowing, voluntary Bohemia. I feel that doing a contemporary La Bohème warrants including the diverse and sometimes opposing perspectives on what Bohemia has come to mean. Therefore I have attempted to imbue our production with the spirit of Murger’s original novella, both in terms of his critique, and in the rollicking spirit of mischief that permeates its romance and tragedy.