"La Boheme" invariably spells La Big Box Office for opera companies everywhere. The latest evidence: Baltimore Opera Company has responded to strong ticket sales by adding an extra performance for its current presentation of this 104-year-old Puccini favorite.
What is it about "Boheme" that grabs so many people? The music, of course; infectious melodies never stop coming.
Speaking of infection, there's also the plot, revolving around a consumptive seamstress, Mimi; her poet boyfriend, Rodolfo; and their fellow bohemians, all trying to get by on the fringes of 19th century Parisian society.
Seems like those characters never lose their relevance. Bohemians still flourish (remember the IMF protesters?); even tuberculosis, unfortunately, is making a comeback.
Surely among those packed into the Lyric Opera House for last night's sold-out opening performance were some first-timers -- those who came (or were dragged) there because they were told that "Boheme" is a great vehicle for operatic induction or that everyone has to see it at least once. Chances are, there will be other virginal types in attendance as the production continues through May 7.
No question, "Boheme" does provide a perfect introduction to the operatic art form. It takes less time than many movies; the musical style is largely conversational, creating a cinematic fluidity; and the action is basically believable. (All right, maybe not the way Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love at first note, but a little poetic license never hurt anybody.)
One dose of "Boheme" can easily turn newcomers into converts, or at least make them open to more opera exposure. Others, especially those who decide to check out "Boheme" only because of its connection to "Rent" ("Boheme": Mimi dies; "Rent": Mimi lives), may end up disappointed, bored, even annoyed at all the caterwauling. I can certainly empathize with that.
When I was a kid, you couldn't pay me to put up with such blood-curdling sounds. But, once in college, someone persuaded me to complement a blossoming interest in classical music by trying to listen seriously to operatic voices, to appreciate the demanding technique required, the enormous variety of vocal coloring and expressive depth possible.
The sounds on various recordings of arias and duets started to become less and less odd or grating. Then I had to get over my tendency to laugh at the mere idea of grown people wandering around a stage singing at each other and acting out some sort of drama or comedy. I could easily have seconded the notion of composer Ernest Krenek, who said: "I came to the conclusion that perhaps the theater of the absurd did not have to be invented, for opera as such seemed absurd enough."
But, eventually, I felt I had to take the big test -- buying and listening to a complete opera. I decided on "Boheme." From the opening jaunty theme representing the come-what-may bohemians, I was hooked. By the last moments -- Rodolfo's desperate cries of "Mimi!" as he realizes his lover is dead -- I was a basket case. Puccini's music had gone right through the ears and directly to the tear ducts.
It was the same when I finally got to experience "Boheme" in the theater.
Never mind that the matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera turned out to be rather routine. Richard Tucker, then well past his prime, sang Rodolfo without any discernible effect on my senses for most of that matinee. But once he let loose with those "Mimi's" above the orchestra's wrenching commentary on the death, I was a wreck. Puccini had done it to me again.
To this day, while cynics dismiss "Boheme" as cheaply sentimental, I have lost none of my original affection for the piece, or gratitude for the way it made me want to keep exploring the world of opera.
Expand your horizon
If you're one of those getting your ears wet with "Boheme" this week, it's critical that you do not stop there. You've got to plunge ahead, to experiment with as many different styles of opera as possible. You can always choose later to avoid some of them -- but only after giving each a try.
Above all, you mustn't fear any style, whether ancient or contemporary. They all share the same basic, decipherable language; only the dialect changes. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities locally to delve into those different varieties.
The Baltimore Opera Company may be wrapping up its season, but the recently founded chamber opera company, Opera Vivente, has a production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" May 18-21 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon. The change from Puccini's 1896, hyper-romantic sound world to Mozart's 18th century elegance, refinement and modest proportions would be good for you.
Even if you're convinced you could never warm up to Mozart and all those recitatives (the sung dialogue in between the good stuff), force yourself. Colorfully delivered recitatives can be as exciting, in their own way, as soaring arias.
Besides, considering the novel way this company will stage "Cosi" -- with the action updated to the 1950s and placed (presumably not as a result of Elian fever) in Cuba -- you might be so distracted you won't even realize how much you're enjoying the exquisitely crafted music.
And it's not too early to start thinking about getting tickets to next season's offerings. Those just getting turned on by "Boheme" will no doubt want to drink in more Puccini, if for no other reason than to discover all the tunes that Andrew Lloyd Webber, uh, borrowed.
Turns out that both Baltimore Opera and Washington Opera companies will present Puccini's exotic "Turandot," a work brimming with spectacle, violence and at least a strong hint of sex. Toss in the prismatic score, and you're talking sure-fire stuff.
Baltimore Opera also plans to cover a good deal more of the waterfront. There will be two of the warhorses that helped put the "grand" in grand opera, Verdi's "Aida" and Gounod's "Faust"; and two highly contrasting examples of the German school, Humperdinck's luscious "Hansel and Gretel" and Strauss' deliciously shocking "Elektra" (it still sounds more modern than some modern operas).
Washington Opera will complement the Puccini hit with more Verdi, "Il trovatore" and "Don Carlo." Next year marks the centennial of the death of this towering figure in opera history, providing the perfect impetus for getting to know his distinctive musical and theatrical style.
The company also has slated two works about the adventures of a conniving barber (Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and Rossini's "The Barber of Seville"); as well as Jules Massenet's endearing take on the "Don Quixote" tale; Wagner's mystical epic, "Parsifal"; and Gian Carlo Menotti's absorbing slice of mid-20th century music-theater, "The Consul."
You really can't go wrong with any of these operas, as long as you approach them with the right level of preparation and openness. And that's really the key to getting the opera bug. Mere dabbling won't do it. It requires effort, like any other form of arts appreciation.
True, you don't have to work as hard as people did before surtitles (the operatic version of subtitles in foreign films) made following the plot a relative breeze. But surtitles almost never give you the complete text -- or context, for that matter.
So it still pays off to read the complete libretto beforehand, along with notes on the opera's origin and the composer's intent; and, if you really want to get an ear up, listen to a recording or two of the work.
Otherwise, you're just as guilty as the crowds back in the time of Voltaire, who observed in 1732 that the main opera house in Paris was "nothing but a public gathering place, where we assemble on certain days without precisely knowing why."
The more you prepare yourself, the more you will know why you're there in that opera house, and why you'll want to keep coming back, even to hear the same operas.
Consider "Boheme." The first time, you're apt to focus on the story and the passionate arias that propel it. It might not be until the next time that you notice how seamlessly Puccini weaves themes that identify characters and feelings into the orchestral fabric.
You're likely to find new layers of significance in what may seem at first hearing to be very straightforward music. Case in point: When philosopher-in-training Colline reaches the end of his strangely moving song to his old overcoat, which he is about to pawn to help pay for Mimi's medicine, the orchestra puts a brief, very dark finishing touch to it.
A few moments later, after Mimi dies, the orchestra brings that same music back to close the entire opera. What is Puccini up to? Why repeat a theme attached to a tattered coat instead of one of Mimi's lovely tunes? Could it be a sad commentary on how, to the outside world, the unfortunate seamstress is about as valuable as a tattered outer garment?
Only engaged listening would prompt such questions.
Anyone making a first venture into opera has to overcome understandable hurdles. I already mentioned the problem of unreality -- song instead of speech. There's also the unavoidable issue of how a particular production looks and sounds. Opera singers come in every dimension, not just every possible level of ability.
Having suspended reality right at the start of the music, opera audiences sometimes find themselves unable to make any more allowances at the first sight of the cast. Legendary soprano Geraldine Farrar summed up the quandary well: "That the world of opera is one of illusion, of fantasy and that it is hard to nurse poetic and fantastic illusions, no matter how fine the voice, when the eye is oppressed by the sight of some 300 pounds of human avoirdupois."
But does it really matter that a singer is ample of figure? Consider the case of soprano Jane Eaglen and tenor Ben Heppner, today's most in-demand pairing for Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." Physically, they're as alike as two peas in a pod -- or two watermelons in a patch (to borrow an "I Love Lucy" line). It's hard to complain, though, in light of their penetrating vocalism.
Conveying the magic
The point of opera is not that singers should look like movie stars, but that they should reveal the truths behind the music. That they should help us experience the full magic of opera, its incomparable potential to transport us, however temporarily, to a higher plane of existence. A place where we don't just learn a lot about others, but a lot about ourselves.
When you find yourself holding your breath while the Aida and her Egyptian boyfriend are running out of theirs, using up the last oxygen in their sealed tomb to sing a duet of aching, arching phrases, you'll touch that other realm.
It will be the same when you feel the shivers as Elektra dances into oblivion, her bloody deed of vengeance complete, and the orchestra whips up a tremendous storm of sensuality and madness.
Or when ethereal harmonies slowly turn the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel into a profound statement about the fragile, precious innocence of childhood. Or when the wife of an unfaithful husband in the otherwise comic "Marriage of Figaro" suddenly reveals to us her soul in an aria that speaks for all those who have ever been wounded in the heart.
Even operas with unhappy endings (and there are so many of them) can uplift us, can make us understand and feel loss, suffering, despair in ways that are enlightening, enriching. That's what "Boheme" does, and why it keeps burrowing under the skin of people who get their initial taste of opera from Mimi and the gang.
It's only when we (or the performers) don't get fully involved with the music and the words, don't get past the surface appeal of pretty tunes or pretty sets, that an opera can seem irrelevant or tiresome.
When we make the effort to dig deeper, when we open ourselves up fully to all it has to offer, opera is an art form that just keeps on giving.
Tim Smith is the new classical music critic of The Sun. Born in Washington, D.C., he received an M.A. in music history from Occidental College in Los Angeles. After free-lancing for the Washington Star and Washington Post, he served as music critic at the Sun-Sentinel, South Florida, for 19 years before joining The Sun.
The point of opera is not that singers should look like movie stars, but that they should reveal the truths behind the music.