"Bohemian" is a word that crept into English from the French and was first popularized by a writer named Henri Murger. First he wrote a hit play, La vie de Bohème (1849), then an equally successful book, Scènes de la vie de Bohème. But it's probably Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, which premiered in 1896, that made the word commonplace. It may seem strange to claim such influence for an opera, but La Bohème's success is amazing. Efforts to document the number of performances it has had suggest it is the most frequently performed "serious" stage work of any kind, ever. And it retains its power: There will be two versions of the piece on Broadway this season. One is the long-running Rent, based on the story, but updated and made even franker; the other is a treatment of the opera itself by the director Baz Luhrman, who created the movie Moulin Rouge. Houston Grand Opera's new production of La Bohème, presented in collaboration with New York City Opera and Glimmerglass Opera, opens on October 25.
Murger's tales first appeared in newspapers in the mid-1840s. Although he dressed up his life somewhat, the stories were autobiographical. His pals and girlfriends appeared as characters and it was his keen, almost journalistic eye for details that created such a sensation.
Murger not only talked the talk, he also walked the walk of a full-fledged bohemian. He thought he was a poet and as such he traveled the circuit of young people, rootless and far from middle-class morality, who flocked to Paris to try to get into the arts. Whether or not they had any talent was another question. Or perhaps their talents were for living this wild life, usually broke, where the things that were free were sex and death.
"Bohemian" probably came from the French word for Gypsy, but the term didn't refer to race or nationality. A bohemian was a young person in the big city, living hand to mouth, with a wide circle of eccentric friends. It was the opposite of bourgeois. The behavior of the young bohemians was meant to shock and horrify the good burghers who went to bed early, paid their taxes, and usually got married at some point, often before shacking up.
Death was omnipresent for bohemians. Murger himself died at 39, evidently as a result of the privations and excesses of his youth. He described Bohemia as "the preface to the Academy, the [hospital], or the morgue." The first is a sly reference to those bohemians who despite sowing tons of wild oats went on to high respectability, as Murger himself did, thanks to his successes. This is the fate of the characters called Rodolfo and Marcello in the opera. In Murger's stories they become self-satisfied members of the silent majority in mid-life.
Still, many bohemians did not get that option. Tuberculosis was a frequent cause of death. We know it is highly contagious, but back then it was thought to be the disease of the immoral and was often linked to promiscuous sex. Because illness and death, not to mention starvation, were common enough to seem almost inevitable, turning everything into a party was understandable. So was feeling rich from accumulated eccentricities.
Murger lived with a roommate for a time. They had only one complete suit of clothes between them, so when one had an appointment he would get the clothes. The other would stay home in bed covered in newspapers. The friend of Murger who was the basis for the poet Rodolfo in the opera is described this way: "A young man with a huge, bushy, multicolored beard. He was prematurely bald, you could count the hairs on his head, which was bare as a knee. He wore a black jacket, full of holes. His trousers were perhaps black but his boots, which had never been new, seemed to have already made several world tours on the feet of the Wandering Jew."
Puccini, too, was no stranger to the bohemian life. He and the composer Pietro Mascagni (who wrote Cavalleria Rusticana) were roommates for a time. They had one chamber pot. They used it to cook pasta‹as well as for its usual purpose.
One day they were preparing soup for lunch on the 1880s version of a hot plate, a portable gas cooker. They set it on the top of the upright piano they shared and took it into their heads to play parts of Wagner's Götterdämmerung four-handed. They got so carried away with their pounding that they forgot all about their lunch. Toward the end of the "Funeral March," putting their young muscle into a great climax, they caused the gas cooker and the soup to fall over onto the piano, starting a fire‹and wrecking lunch, which upset them more. Though they both became successes and rivals afterwards, they chuckled throughout their lives about their own personal "immolation scene."
Mimí and Musetta in the opera are composites of the many young women who flocked around Murger's circle of male friends (one of whom was called "The Green Giant" because of a huge green overcoat he never took off, in the pockets of which he kept books‹he was the model for Puccini's Colline). Those women who were pretty enough knew the lure of prostitution and didn't always resist. One of the Musetta types was called Mademoiselle Bagpipe because she had a "pretty, [though] out-of-tune voice." After amassing a considerable fortune in her chosen profession she decided to lose her past and embarked for Algeria on a boat that capsized. She drowned. But another Musetta prototype ended up becoming the mistress of a postmaster who was the disapproving guardian of one of her young boyfriends!
One of the prototypes for Mimí was really named Lucille (in the opera Mimí says her real name is Lucia). Only one of the women Mimí was based on was really admirable, although several died young. The others tended toward sexual opportunism, but Murger finally found true love with one of them. Curiously, like Puccini and his long-suffering mistress Elvira, Murger's lady friend was married to someone else. But that did not stop them from becoming a happy couple. (Puccini was less happy with Elvira, a respectable married woman whom he met and seduced while giving her voice lessons, but they stayed together, and many years later, they married.)
La Bohème was written nearly 50 years after the original play and novel, but it was an utterly original opera and remains unique. Rather than getting bogged down in a wealth of incidents, the opera consists of four short acts that share some slight narrative themes. The characters are enriched because so many are folded into so few, without there being much need for text. All the characters have a richness of personality that is rare in opera. The easy blend of story and music‹just enough story for the music to work‹the wonderfully tuneful dialogues, the soaring lyricism are still potent. They are qualities that Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy envied, and neither was a fan of Puccini's.
Above all, Puccini has managed a small miracle of "nowness." La Bohème has kept its immediacy and impact. It never seems old-fashioned. One of Murger's themes is that for his bohemians everything is right now, this instant. You can't know what tomorrow will bring. Youth will pass, but it is to be reveled in while you have it.
Although Puccini's opera ends sadly, it is shot through with that intensity of this particular moment. There is no distance between the audience and the stage. Like those bohemians, we get caught up in the luxury of eccentricity and the riches of remembering what it was like not to care about tomorrow.
Albert Innaurato is a playwright who writes often about the arts.