Interview: Andy Morton
Director Andy Morton on the great tragedy of youth at the heart of La Bohème.
There’s an antagonist in La Bohème, and it’s not a man with a knife or a gun. It’s not poverty. It’s not the cold. It’s not the mysterious illness that threatens Mimì.
It’s bohème itself, says Andy Morton, the man charged with directing this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. In the bohemian life, art and philosophy are more important than food, than shelter, than any practical consideration.
Andy Morton, director of La Bohème on Sydney Harbour.
And it’s the bohemian life that must take some of the blame for the tragedy of this opera, Morton explains.
On the surface, the bohemian life is appealing: carefree, idealistic and unbound by convention. “But I think of Bohème like that guy who’s the life of the party, but if you get too close, he has a dark side,” Morton says. “He’s the most fun to be around, he’s a great bloke, but he’s also the guy who drives everyone home when he’s had too much to drink. He takes things too far.”
In other words, bohème is an idealised life with no consequences, until it does have consequences, and they’re tragic.
La Bohème speaks to audiences because the characters are so recognisable, Morton says. It’s not that many of us have lived the bohemian experience, pursuing art over money and comfort. It’s that we’ve all been young and careless to a fault.
“It’s a show about being young, and falling in love, and living without a thought for tomorrow. That resonates with everyone,” he says. “That’s why it’s so immediate.”
La Bohème is a gift to a director interested in all the facets of human life. “Act I and Act II is joy and silliness and naughtiness and irresponsibility.” It’s youth, Morton explains. “When we behaved as we saw fit in the moment because when we’re young, we think we’re immortal.”
“It’s a show about being young, and falling in love, and living without a thought for tomorrow. That resonates with everyone,” Morton says. “That’s why it’s so immediate.”
In Act III, it turns cold and dark. The audience can see the tragedy coming. Mimì warns her friends. But Act IV comes along “and the boys haven’t changed,” Morton says. “And it gives you this powerful wrench in the gut, because you’re still enjoying their antics but you know they shouldn’t be doing it any more. They’re in a fantasy world. These are boys that can’t bear to grow up, and Act IV is about them realising they should have.”
Morton and designer Dan Potra have set La Bohème on Sydney Harbour amid the politically charged atmosphere of Paris during the late 1960s. It was a joyful and restless period, full of idealism and hope for a different future.
But demonstrations soon turned to riots and a brutal police crackdown quickly shifted the atmosphere from idealism to violence. You only see suggestions of this in La Bohème on Sydney Harbour — the hangover of the student demonstrations is the cold wind that blows through Act III. There is a sense of constrained freedom.
But it’s important to recognise that the story isn’t about politics, Morton says. While Paris begins to stir with feeling, the friends are caught up in their own world. They pursue their art to the exclusion of everything else. They can’t change or even see the need to, until it’s too late. And it tears their loves and lives apart.
“Of course, in the end, a stark reality comes suddenly and crushes their joy,” Morton says. “Ultimately, they have to face up to the end of their youth.”
The philosopher Colline almost has the last word, as he farewells the faithful old thrift-store coat he must pawn in the vain hope of saving a life. He’s singing to a coat, but the meaning is clear.
“Now that our happy days have fled, I must bid you farewell, faithful friend of mine. Farewell, farewell.”