First impressions can be deceiving, but they linger in the mind. Who can blame opera lovers for quickly classifying those Puccini heroines Mimí and Musetta as Good Girl and Bad Girl, respectively. Mimí, dressed modestly, enters her first scene in La Bohème timidly apologizing for her intrusion. Musetta comes in with a bang, in a flamboyant outfit that screams, "Look at me!" Puccini, a consummate theater man, lyrically underlines these contrasting images of women in his romantic masterpiece. But a deeper understanding of the characters reveals many similarities. Houston Grand Opera has two young, thoroughly modern women portraying Mimí and Musetta in its current production of La Bohème.
Ana Maria Martinez, who plays Mimí, is a Cuban-Puerto Rican soprano who has impressed audiences in Los Angeles, Florence, London, and Vienna with her dramatic portrayals of roles that range from Violetta in La Traviata to Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande. Ainhoa Arteta, the Spanish soprano who sings Musetta, is likewise highly regarded for her intense stage characterizations; also a noted Violetta, she has won acclaim worldwide in such roles as Magda in La Rondine (Bonn; Washington, D.C.) and Thérèse in Les Mamelles de Tirésias (New York). Both have honed their distinctive voices to a level of technical security so that they can focus on the drama. By telephone from separate continents, they recently expounded upon their views of Mimí and Musetta.
Playbill: In La Bohème, the conventional view is that Mimí is the "good girl," and Musetta is the "bad girl." Do you agree?
Ana Maria Martinez: Not at all‹no one is completely good or bad. Musetta is impulsive and flirtatious. Mimí is a lot like that, but she is shy and does not have the confidence to do that. Both women are wonderful, with big hearts.
Ainhoa Arteta: Of course, Mimí is good‹she is simple and pure like gold. Musetta is more like champagne. But she is a good girl, too. You can see that in the last act‹she doesn't hesitate to sell her jewelry in order to save Mimí.
Playbill: You have played this role in many productions. How did you first conceive it and how have you developed it since?
Martinez: I first played Mimí with Minnesota Opera in 1996, and the role has been a constant throughout my career. At first, perhaps, I played her a bit too shy and proper. With different productions‹I've played in five or six‹you learn different levels in the character. Now I try to show how Mimí first finds the courage to knock on Rodolfo's door. I think she has had the hots for him for a long time, and finally, on this Christmas Eve, she decides she does not want to be alone. She feels awkward about it, but she does it.
Arteta: I actually made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Mimí, but when they asked me to sing Musetta, I was quite happy to do so, since the Met has a tradition of having very important singers do this role‹like Renata Scotto and Barbara Daniels. Musetta is a fiery woman who loves sex; she enjoys it. I think "Quando m'en vo" is the most erotic aria in opera. If you listen to it, it's very dirty. I have sung Musetta at the Bastille [in Paris], Covent Garden [in London], and in San Francisco. Working with different stage directors, you learn from each. At first I thought the role was light, but then I started seeing how difficult it is. Most of the music is written for the middle range of the voice. It is better to attack from the bottom, approach it as a mezzo part.
Playbill: Obviously, the singer who plays the part of your lover affects your interpretation. Jealousy plays a large part in the Bohemians' relationships. How do you use that in your interpretation?
Martinez: As with any romantic partnering, I go into it with enthusiasm and hope for a profound exchange. I try to observe what my partners are comfortable with. Sometimes there is instant chemistry, but if things are not flowing, I talk with them. I may change my approach so there is harmony, not only with Rodolfo, but also the conductor and the director. In the third act when Mimí overhears the conversation between Rodolfo and Marcello, she is listening to understand why Rodolfo is so jealous. People think listening is passive, but it is really difficult to do. Mimí is surprised‹hurt that he calls her names and finds her flirtatious, because she has not meant to hurt him. She feels sympathy for him at that moment, but this feeling is quickly overshadowed by her realization that what really worries him is her illness. So Mimí has to communicate all this, usually while hidden behind a tree!
Arteta: If the Marcello is a good actor, it makes a big difference. I have been lucky in having good Marcellos to perform with. Musetta must be a strong character. She is smart, she knows how to provoke Marcello to make him come back to her. But I don't know if he is Musetta's true love. They are a bunch of young people‹probably these are their first loves.
Playbill: Mimí and Musetta do not share an extended dialogue onstage, yet their lives are intertwined and by the last act, they have obviously become friends. How do you acknowledge that?
Martinez: A lot of character development happens offstage. A lot happens after Act II, when Marcello introduces Musetta to Mimí.
Arteta: Musetta is very smart. When she enters in Act II, she already knows that Marcello and his friends are there, knows about the relationships among them. By the last act, the way I play it, I have become good friends with Mimí and I take care of her. I hold her and kiss her as she lies dying‹she does not have a choice about this!
Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga, a former associate editor of Opera News, writes frequently on opera, ballet, and travel.