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Baltimore animators and opera singers are behind a Spanish and Afro-Latinx retelling of ‘La Boheme’

An Afro-Latinx and Spanish-language reimagining of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, “La Boheme,” comes to life with a new animated film available for streaming online this week. Set in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., during winter 2019 and spring 2020, “Boheme in the Heights” is a tale of youth, creativity, the transcendence of love and the heartbreak of first loss.

Baltimore-based opera singers and animators are behind the updated version, as well as IN Series— a 40-year-old D.C-based opera-theater company.

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“Boheme in the Heights” — much like the Broadway musical adaptation “Rent” or the blockbuster movie “Moulin Rouge,” which drew inspiration from “La Boheme” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata” — not only translates Puccini’s original through language, but contemporizes the opera’s traditional stage production and setting in 1830s France.

The original opera follows the Bohemian lifestyle of a poor seamstress and her artist friends. One character falls desperately ill and cannot recover due to poverty. Thus, the young bohemians are awoken to the harsh realities of life.

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Left, Emma Ayala, a director and lead animator, watches as Ezekiel Hickman, 15, sophomore, displays his animation. He is one of the Baltimore School for the Arts (BSA) students that made "Boheme in the Heights,” a full-length opera animated film.
Left, Emma Ayala, a director and lead animator, watches as Ezekiel Hickman, 15, sophomore, displays his animation. He is one of the Baltimore School for the Arts (BSA) students that made "Boheme in the Heights,” a full-length opera animated film. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

“There’s a segment at the end of act two, where the bohemians are running away from this fancy restaurant where they haven’t paid for their meal,” said Emma Ayala, the co-director behind animating and compositing “Boheme in the Heights.” (Compositing is the process of combining visual elements from separate sources to create one image.)

“They slip into an oncoming parade in the original,” Ayala said. “For this, they’re slipping into a Black Lives Matter protest.”

Ayala said filmmakers added drum recordings from Baltimore’s summer 2020 protests into the score.

In the classic opera, the protagonists meet on Christmas Eve, when Mimi knocks on Rodolpho’s door looking for a candle light. In “Boheme in the Heights,” Mimi is asking instead for a phone charger.

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Louis Riva stars as Rodolfo and Judy Yannini as Mimi in the animated film "Boheme in the Heights."
Louis Riva stars as Rodolfo and Judy Yannini as Mimi in the animated film "Boheme in the Heights." (E. Ayala / HANDOUT)

“The idea of setting it Christmas Eve 2019 and going through April 2020, where the pandemic was really starting to hit, means that as you watch the opera, you really see that journey,” said Timothy Nelson, IN Series artistic director and co-director of “Boheme in the Heights.”

“Ayala was really brilliant to include animated or drawn versions of newspaper clippings that show the beginning of the pandemic and the first warnings from the World Health Organization,” he said. “And then, it ends with a young woman dying of a respiratory illness.”

Ayala, who went to University of Maryland, Baltimore County for visual arts, teaches film and visual arts at the Baltimore School for the Arts and is adjunct faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She and 30 young animators from the city’s public arts high school and across the Baltimore region illustrated the film during the pandemic and rendered it in an eclectic range of handcrafted styles.

Kaori Taylor, a Baltimore School for the Arts alum and current freshman at Johns Hopkins University, was a paid compositor on the project.

She said her biggest highlight “was the amount of creative freedom I had in creating my cuts. After I was given my designated parts, I was allowed to choose the frame composition, staging of actors, and background for each shot. I was given the opportunity to create the visuals I thought best reflected the scene.”“

“Boheme in the Heights” was the first time Taylor had ever worked on a project of such caliber, as well as her first time watching an opera.

“La Boheme is about the power of youth to create beauty, even in the midst of real adversity and poverty and starvation and illness,” Nelson said. “There’s something so moving about knowing that this is a piece about young artists at the beginning of their careers that’s really being made by young artists at the beginning of their careers.”

IN Series offers a four-year fellowship for Black artists called the Cardwell Dawson Residency Program. The program as strong ties to Baltimore, with three of the four fellows living in the city and two connected to the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. The inaugural fellows in the program — named after Mary Cardwell Dawson, founder of the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh in 1941 — performed in “Boheme in the Heights.”

Alex Alburqueque stars as Marcelo in "Boheme in the Heights," a Spanish-language and Afro-Latinx retelling of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera.
Alex Alburqueque stars as Marcelo in "Boheme in the Heights," a Spanish-language and Afro-Latinx retelling of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera. (E. Ayala / HANDOUT)

Production of the animated adaptation started in September 2020, with opera singers and the pianist recording themselves in isolation, on cell phones, in bathrooms and closets. It took five months to assemble the soundtrack before performers were filmed separately. The videographers then sent those clips to illustrators.

Ayala, who is Puerto Rican, said having the lyrics switched from Italian into Spanish was “like a light being flipped on.”

“The switch to Spanish was just night and day in my ability to connect and work with the material,” she said. “The translation actually did really influence my ability to connect with the music and to understand the music. If it did that for me, there’s a lot of other people who [it will] do that for.”

Nelson said the classic opera also lends itself to magical realism — an artistic and literary style popular in Latin America that weaves fantasy into everyday life. Animation was the avenue for this vision to pop on screen.

“I’ve always tried to do a production where the cast of young people literally build their world,” Nelson said. “They draw their world, they go from black and white to creating color. And then towards the end, as they finally come face to face with the reality of death, that that color drains from the world. That’s exactly how I’ve always imagined ‘Boheme,’ but I’d never be able to do it that way on the stage.”

The film debuted in October at Creative Alliance in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood and the D.C.-based GALA Hispanic Theatre. “Boheme in the Heights” will be available free on-demand starting Christmas week on INvision, the online streaming platform for IN Series.

Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.

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