Cheat Sheet: La Bohème ON SYDNEY HARBOUR
Everything you need to know about one of the world's most popular operas.
Born in Tuscany in 1858, Puccini is an Italian composer who took Verdi’s crown as the most prominent composer of Italian opera in his day. Renowned for his love affairs, Puccini left a trail of broken hearts across Italy, but also left us music-lovers 10 beautiful operas, three of which are regularly in the top 10 of operas performed around the world.
What makes Puccini Puccini?
Puccini’s music is sweeping, uplifting, enchanting and always intensely moving. His real genius, however, was to combine that music with stories about ordinary people.
The composer himself once said his success was due to putting “great sorrows in little souls”.
Puccini died after a heart attack in 1924.
Giacomo Puccini at the piano (Alinari Archives, Milan)
A poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher walk into a bar (no really!) to celebrate a sudden windfall in a lean winter. It’s Christmas Eve, and the poet has just felt the first pangs of great love. When a seamstress knocks on his door searching for candlelight, the pair fall in love faster than she can sing “Yes, they call me Mimì...”
Between the ideals of love and art and the cruel realities of cold winters, bitter jealousies and empty pockets, two sets of lovers are trying to find their way.
By the time the curtain falls, you’ll know the answer to an eternal question:
Is love enough?
That sounds familiar...
It’s a common tale! La Bohème has inspired all kinds of adaptations.
Seen RENT: The Musical? Jonathan Larson’s 1996 smash-hit musical borrows several characters and plotlines from Puccini’s smash-hit opera. Baz Luhrmann’s award-winning film Moulin Rouge also borrows a bit from the Puccini classic (that Luhrmann made his name directing for Opera Australia in 1990).
Puccini even borrowed some of his own memories. The composer was a poor student in his youth, living a life very similar to the young bohemians of his opera. He wrote in his diary:
“I lived that bohème, when there wasn’t yet any thought in my brain of seeking the theme of an opera...”
Who are the main players?
Rodolfo: a poet
Mimì: a seamstress
Marcello: a painter
Musetta: a singer
Schaunard: a musician
Colline: a philosopher
'Musetta’s Waltz' is a standout in the score.
You might know the 1959 Della Reese pop song, 'Don’t You Know'—based on Musetta’s famous tune. It was also the theme song for the film Moonstruck and is often referenced in movies, television programs and advertisements.
Something to listen out for
Puccini sets the scene with music, so listen out for sound effects. At the beginning of Act III as snow begins to fall on stage, the flutes and the harp take up a beautiful melody. Soak it up—it captures the feeling of fresh snow flakes on cold noses.
A spectacular affair created especially for the famous harbour-top stage at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.
Director Andy Morton has set Mimi and Rodolfo’s romantic awakening amid the political awakening of Paris during the 1960s.
It was a restless, joyous, idealistic period, an ideal canvas for an opera concerned with art, love and poverty.
Designer Dan Potra has created a wintry wonderland on Sydney Harbour, with all the romance of a snow-kissed Parisian streetscape. Video projections conjure up the famous landmarks of Paris as well as graphic poster art from the period.
The costumes reflect the changing mood of Parisian society: elegant and refined period costumes make way for the fun shapes, bold colours and bright patterns of the late 1960s.
The librettists Illica and Giacosa adapted a popular novel (then play) by Henri Murger about Bohemian life in 1840s Paris. Puccini began working on the opera, enraging a fellow composer, Leoncavallo, who claimed to have been working on a similar libretto first! Puccini declined to cease writing, saying, “Let him compose, and I will compose. The public will judge.” They did. Leoncavallo’s version is all but forgotten.
Puccini's new opera premiered in Turin in 1896 and after a mixed reception, it became a runaway success. By 1900, it had been performed in many of the leading opera houses across Europe and the Americas by some of the stars of the day. Dame Nellie Melba sang Mimì for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
The young Arturo Toscanini conducted the world premiere.
An original poster for La Bohème, illustrated by Adolfo Hohenstein and published in 1895.
- While the opera has four acts, Puccini didn't call them “acts”. He thought of them as “images”.
- Puccini’s opera omitted one of the acts prepared by the librettists. In the missing act, Mimì dances with a viscount at a party and thus sets the scene for Rodolfo’s terrible jealousy in Act III.
The composer: Puccini. Italian. Late 19th century. Also famous for Madama Butterfly and Turandot (which features 'Nessun Dorma').
The music: Famous for his big, sweeping, tuneful melodies, coupled with stories about ordinary people. He said his success came down to putting "great sorrows in little souls". (In other words, bring tissues.)
The big hit: Full of the kind of tunes that tug at your heartstrings, the most famous is probably Musetta's Waltz.
The spin-offs: RENT: The Musical and Moulin Rouge both owe a lot to Puccini's La Bohème.
The setting: Usually set in 1830s Paris, director Andy Morton has updated the setting to Paris in the late 1960s, around the time of the famous student uprisings.
A quirky fact to impress your date: Puccini was inspired by his own poor student days as he wrote this opera. He said "I lived that bohème..."