It may come as a surprise to those who have followed Baz Luhrmann's career, but the iconoclastic director is not out to revolutionize opera with his Broadway production of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème. Luhrmann, whose "Moulin Rouge" redefined the movie musical, has remained true to Puccini's beautiful score, which is sung by classically trained singers in Italian (with English surtitles). At the same time, he has reinvigorated the piece with his vision and imagination, hoping to appeal to audiences reluctant to set foot in an opera house.
"The idea was to bring Italian opera back to the audience for whom it was written, which was essentially everybody," says Luhrmann. "When La Bohème premiered in 1896, Italian opera was popular entertainment, like television. So the one rule we had in putting together this production was to try and make it as if it were being done for the first time, as if Puccini had just written this show. [Puccini wanted] his work to play for every kind of audience; he wanted to move people, to make them laugh and cry. All the choices and decisions we've made were with that in mind. We want the production to have that same kind of direct connection to the audience. We have not come to leer and scorn at classical versions that are done in opera houses. It's just that a work that is universal must be interpreted in different ways, in different times, in different places, to speak the same message to different audiences."
La Bohème is the story of the doomed love affair between the consumptive Mimi, a seamstress, and Rodolfo, a writer. The original production, inspired by an autobiographical novel written by Henri Murger in the 1840's, was set in Bohemian Paris in the 1830's. Luhrmann's Broadway version, which is based on the acclaimed, sold-out production he mounted in 1990 for The Australian Opera in his native Sydney, takes place in Bohemian Paris in 1957.
"That year is a good social and economic match for the 1840's," says Luhrmann. "And 1957 is also the last year that consumption, or tuberculosis, was a real issue. The French started government inoculations much later than other countries."
The stunning set and costume designs by Catherine Martin — or C.M., as Luhrmann refers to his wife and "creative soul mate" — are in shades of white, black and gray, and lit to stunning effect by Nigel Levings. The few splashes of color are found mostly on the costumes for the Bohemians — and on a neon L'Amour sign, which was also featured in Moulin Rouge. "When we did La Bohème the first time, we spent six months in Paris researching what the city was like in the fifties," says Luhrmann. "We wanted to convey that feeling to the audience. Every street corner in Paris is full of black-and-white postcards featuring images by photographers of the fifties, like Doisneau and Brassaï. Doisneau's famous shot of people kissing [Le Baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville] became an important image for us. We wanted to evoke that monochromatic world, and show how the Bohemians provide color to that world. The love of Mimi and Rodolfo is color. The Bohemian ideal is that they're colorful characters who have passion, who live life to the full, in the moment. But they live in poverty, in a black-and-white world, in a harsh, cold, postwar world."
Three alternating casts, chosen following a worldwide search during which 3,000 artists auditioned, play the roles of Mimi and Rodolfo. "It wasn't enough that they just have the pipes, which all our performers do," says Luhrmann. "They also had to look like the 25-year-old characters they were playing. That was fundamental. If you read Puccini's letters, you find he was extremely focused on casting. He wanted people who could sing, who could act and who looked the part."
Luhrmann was 27 when he first tackled La Bohème. Earlier this year, while working on the production in San Francisco, he turned 40, and the intervening years have colored his view of and approach to the piece. "When we first did it, the idea of it being a young person's opera was very real," he says, "because it's about 25-year-olds who have romantic ideals and no money. That's who C.M. and I were. But La Bohème is also about the moment in your life when you realize that no matter how idealistic you are, no matter how much you love someone, there are some relationships that, no matter how perfect, simply cannot be. No one is protected against that. This production is not as brash as the first one I did. But the melancholia, the sadness, the coldness — those are slightly more potent. We recognize that as much as La Bohème is a story of beginnings, it's also a story of endings — which beget new beginnings."