The Baz "Bohème"

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I'm inoperable. From my earliest youth, I resisted the helpful attempts of family and friends to introduce me to the seductions of opera. Not that I was a musical illiterate: I did enjoy the light-classical pieces, some of which inspired me to an inchoate creativity. I dimly recall that at the age of three I performed an interpretive dance to "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite" — imagine an infant version of Bobby from "King of the Hill" leaping about in imitation of a Norwegian troll. But this is perhaps more than I care to remember, or you want to know. The point is that the Child Corliss could respond to certain elevated music forms, just not the one where fat people caterwauled in a foreign language.

Baz Luhrmann was thinking of inoperables like me when he staged Puccini's "La Bohème" for the Sydney Opera House in 1990. He wanted the young Parisians in the story played by young actors — for the piece to recapture its own youth through an intimate, impudent interpretation. He didn't cut the score, or interpolate pop songs into it; it really was "Bohème." But he did update the time frame, from the 1830s to the 1950s. With his designer (and, from 1997, his wife) Catherine Martin, he created a mostly black-and-white look — film-noir shadows, snow on sooty streets, and the pale romantic spirit of Gérard Philipe — punctuated by exclamations of red on the costumes and the Cafe Momus set in Act II. In the 1993 rendition of this "Bohème" that was taped for TV, Mimi, the consumptive seamstress, was convincingly, if a bit too robustly, embodied by soprano Cheryl Barker; and David Hobson offered a Rodolfo so manly, indeed dishy, that I'm surprised he didn't find a parallel career in movies.

Luhrmann did. He made his first feature, "Strictly Ballroom," in 1992; then a dizzy, jizzy "Romeo + Juliet" set in Miami Beach; then last year's swoonissima musical "Moulin Rouge." Baz Luhrmann: movie maniac. But he never discarded his dream to bring "Bohème" — which he calls, with his usual entrepreneurial bravado, "the greatest love story ever sung" — out of the opera house and into a Broadway theater. His freshened production is, in fact, at THE Broadway Theatre, just a block south of David Letterman's headquarters at the Ed Sullivan.

The proximity to the cynic-king of late night is a lovely coincidence, for Luhrmann's ambition is to lure Letterman's audience into the Broadway, to open the minds of the young, hip and affectless to his boho "Bohème." The production's statement of intent reads: "Puccini's ‘La Bohème' is an opera about real people, for real people. Now, director Baz Luhrmann brings ‘La Bohème' back to the people for whom Puccini wrote it — everyone." (Everyone with $95; that's the top ticket price.) "Mr. Luhrmann has insisted on finding young, sexy performers who are actually suited to the roles. To that end, he and conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos have spent the last two years searching the globe for great young actors who can blow the roof off the theatre."



IS IT REAL OPERA?

Manhattan's mainstream theater already has a few second cousins of real opera. "Les Misérables" — not an opera, not an operetta, more an operepic, which is in its 16th and final Broadway year — takes place largely in the student agitation of Paris 1830, the original setting for Puccini's opera. Broadway's "Aida" is the old Egyptian-captain-meets-slave-princess story, though with music by Elton John, not Giuseppe Verdi.

Then there's "Rent," which is "Bohème" transported to New York's Lower East Side with a derivative rock score and a lot more whining than Puccini allowed. Composer Jonathan Larson had eyes less for "Bohème" than for "Hair," the 1967 tribal love-rock musical. Larson (who died just before the show opened), sampled many of Galt MacDermot's tunes and tropes, but he had neither the temperament to match the 60s show's spirit nor the songwriting skills to rival MacDermot's overflow of lyrical invention. Still, "Rent" has run nearly seven years, three more than "Hair" did, so maybe I'm missing the enduring appeal of tunelessness and communal self-pity.

This is the competition for the new "Bohème" — this, and the countless revivals of the opera throughout the world. (Luhrmann says it's the piece with the most productions in theater history.) The director hews to tradition by having his lead singers on stage only two or three times a week; there are three rotating Rodolfos, three Mimis, two Marcellos and Musettas, so as not to scrape the singer's instruments raw. The night I attended, I heard Alfred Boe (Rodolfo), Wei Huang (Mimi), Ben Davis (Marcello) and Jessica Comeau (Musetta). They struck me as, respectively: excellent; technically impressive but emotionally remote; I forget; and wowee!

Luhrmann has updated the setting. Paris, 1957-58. So the show has to be mostly in black-and-white; that was the standard for romantic movie melodramas of the time and country. A French poster for Brando's "The Wild One" ("Le Gang descend sur la ville") adorns the door of Rodolfo's flat. The production allows for all kinds of modern references, 50s and otherwise, including an allusion to its Broadway rival when the landlord angrily enters and demands, in a one-word sentence, "Rent!" Toward the end Rodolfo and his friends dance, the four men throwing in a few steps with a Jets-like swagger from "West Side Story." This high-kicking esprit is not just a flick of a 1957 Broadway show, it's a reminder of the youth and agility of the principals — thus an implicit grapefruit in the face of the opera tradition of middle-aged tenors and stolid divas playing young people in the first flush of love, the first shudder of death.

At Luhrmann's urging, an uncredited translator (Brian Fitzgerald did the job in the 1990 production) has colloquialized the libretto by Puccini's crucial collaborators Giuseppe Giacoco and Luigi Illica, who also wrote "Manon Lescaut," "Tosca" and "Madama Butterfly" for the composer. The singers declaim in Italian, and the subtitles projected onto a stage platform read, "I'm freezing my ass off!" or "Listen up, cats!" or "Oh, go to hell!" (You may also read the translations on supertitles above the action and on side titles embedded in the wings of the set.)

But the main innovation is the venue: it's opera on Broadway. And as in every other Broadway musical, the singers' voices are amplified — which would be anathema 12 blocks up Broadway at the Metropolitan Opera. On Brian Lehrer's WNYC radio show the other day, diva emerita Beverly Sills observed that the voices of Luhrmann's performers weren't "big enough" to sing without mikes. They weren't real opera singers, by Sills' definition, because to blow the roof off the theater they needed the help of electronic dynamite. A listener then called in to point out that singers are miked at the New York City Opera, which Sills ran for ten years. So nobody's pure; nobody's perfect.

Operaphiles can judge the singing abilities of all Luhrmann's principals by picking up the CD "La Bohème on Broadway." I have previously disqualified myself from pretending to opera expertise. (Well, I could pretend but I couldn't pull it off.) So I'll stick to what I'm qualified to say: I don't know if this is great opera, but it's a fabulous show.



"L'AMOUR"

Oh, that sign: a huge red "L'amour" written in candy-cane cursives. It is Luhrmann's signature, his philosophy and shtick, his declaration that love conquers all, a testament to the gaudiness and foreignness of romance. This sign has appeared in his three movies, as well as the two productions of "Le Bohème" that preceded and follow them. I don't recall if he got the sign into the video for his one-off hit "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)"; but even Luhrmann's ingenuity will be taxed trying to insinuate a French logo into his next film project: "Alexander the Great."

In "Moulin Rouge" it towered sur les toits de Paris, the home town of love; there the sign glittered with every color in Luhrmann's hallucinogenic palette. "L'amour" similarly looms here over a black-and-white Paris. Attended by a graven seraph under the ledge, the sign adorns the roof outside the poet Rodolfo's penthouse digs; it's the one gigantic assertion of love-as-destiny at the beginning of "Bohème." But there are smaller reflections of its warmth: the squiggles of red paint that Marcello drops on his canvas; the red glow of the stove (achieved by a torch held by a stagehand who squats behind the stove) as Rodolfo uses his latest manuscript as kindling for the freezing artists. At the end of Act I, he meets Mimi, and their chats flames into the ardor of an aria, and, as the singers hit their high notes, the sign flushes to an even bolder red — glowing in empathy, like E.T.'s insides. It's a moment of theatrical magic that heats the heart....

...and ushers in the astonishment of Act II — a suddenly gaudy, congested, ravishingly colorful panorama outside Cafe Momus on the rue St. Germain. The "L'amour" sign is now joined by others, promoting such establishments as the Femme Fatale 51 Nightclub, the Hotel Tomkat and, on a second story, Madame Chow's, with black-and-white neon dragons climbing up the sides of the balcony window. The intimacy and poverty of Act I opens into a riot of community: the tall blind accordionist, the kid on roller skates, the effeminate Negro in goatee and beret, the nuns and whores and the dwarf. Any habitue of the modern musical, where so many shows look stripped-down, underpopulated, pinchpenny, will get a thrill simply to see 50 people on a Broadway stage, in a time. But this Left Bank Halloween parade also reveals the director's teeming sensibility finally unleashed. It's Baz Time!

Musetta, Marcello's vamp of a girlfriend, is the exclamation point on this effusion of eccentricity and egocentricity. As Comeau inhabits her, she is a slim, voluptuous stunner in a red dress that seems to flare out of the darkness (black hat, gloves, fur, shoes and slip straps) — a bolder expression of the flame of Rodolfo's devotion to Mimi that sparks from the ashes of his poverty; it's the difference between lust and love. The soubrette of the piece, Musetta is supposed to offer comic relief to the central tragic affair. But she takes over! (I'll bet she does it even in more conservative versions of "Bohème.") She is a magnet for all men's eyes, whereas Mimi all but disappears in the St. Germain bustle. She gets to sing the opera's big hit: the waltz "Quando m'en vo'," which in a Della Reese rendition called "Don't You Know" went to #2 on the pop charts in 1959.

Most important, Musetta speaks, like a siren cooing in his ear, to Luhrmann's itch for visual and emotional extravagance, for characters who command a room by striding into it. Rodolfo and Marcello are, at heart, cramped souls whose jealousies diminish them; Mimi is a sweet, recessive thing, one of Fate's noble losers. These are the monochrome characters who dominate three of the four acts, the ones suited to the production's b&w design. But Musetta is in color — she's a fashion statement and a fashion show — and she steals the show. The main characters are the snow that falls in the first and third acts; Musetta is the streams of confetti that pop-gun into the audience at the end of Act II.

In this production the opera's four acts are played with one intermission and two scene breaks, which let the audience look at stagehands, in derbies and suspenders over black shirts, doing their jobs. To reveal the machinery rather than concealing it: that's Luhrmann. He knows that "realism" is the drabbest form of make-believe. Why try to convince theatergoers that they're not in a theater? Best to give them a glimpse of the cables and scaffolding, the blue-collar artisans who contribute to the over-all fantasy. They're also part of the theatrical magic.

Of course, the director doesn't want you to trip over those cables and lose your suspension of disbelief. He wants to give the crowd a good sob. This he does, triumphing over that Act III problem of Rodolfo imputing criminal flirtatiousness to a Mimi whose eyes have never left him. It's as if the original authors had confused the two main couples, and forgotten it was Marcello who was jealous over Musetta's coquettry. How did Rodolfo fall in Marcello's plot hole? The authors might shrug and reply, "It's an opera, stupid. Boy meets girl; boy has to lose girl." (Though here, Rodolfo doesn't lose Mimi so much as dump her.) All right, then. We understand. Mimi's job is to cough and die; Rodolfo's is to realize too late that he had the power to cure Mimi by staying with her; the opera's is to run a zigzag course to a final fatal embrace; and ours is to crawl into this liebestöd cocoon and cry our eyes out.

That's what happens. Brought ailing to Rodolfo's flat, Mimi collapses into a chair, the lovers have a final duet. Die. Cry. Both beautifully. And when Rodolfo (in the 1993 Sydney Opera version) realizes that his beloved is gone forever, he is wracked with sobs. They continue after the last strains of music end, even after the lights die down. It's a welling of despair that can't be tamped — eerie, profound and transporting.



WITHER THE CLASSICS?

I was impressed, often thrilled by the Baz "Bohème," and I'm pleased that audiences are filling the Broadway Theatre. But I doubt the piece's success, if it should last, will bring musical literacy to the masses.

Kids of earlier generations got a vagrant, enforced education in classical music. On radio and TV, the Lone Ranger rode out of the West to Rossini's "William Tell Overture." In the 30s, Jeanette MacDonald built a sturdy star career, and a bunch of crowd-pleasing movies, on her coloratura warbling of the light classics; at the same time, the Marx Brothers deconstructed (make that destructed) Puccini in "A Night at the Opera." In the early years of television, Milton Berle and Ernie Kovacs adapted classical themes to comical schemes; Sid Caesar and his troupe starred in opera sketches. The point is that high-brow European music was deemed enough a part of the American vernacular to be quoted and burlesqued. We knew this stuff, even if we didn't like it.

They heard classical melodies adapted into popular hits. As late as the 60s, serious music got frivolized into top-of-the-pops tunes. The 1965 "Lover's Concerto," by the Toys, came from Bach's "Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, Minuet In G." Procol Harum's 1967 "A Whiter Shade of Pale" featured another Bach ditty ("Air on a G String"). Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 21," when played as the theme for the 1967 Swedish film "Elvira Madigan," became the soundtrack for a million romances, the underscoring for sensitive seduction.

I'd be surprised if classical music ran through kids' heads today. I know the statistics indicating that attendance at symphonies and opera has increased 20% in the past five years. I'm pleased that the Saturday-afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts sponsored by Texaco (now ChevronTexaco) are now in their 63rd years and can be found on 360 stations in North America and many others around the world. ("La Bohème" will be performed March 8, 2003.) But the classics do not inundate popular culture as they once did. Now, when kids speak of classics, they mean — with no irony and in all ignorance — 50s and 60s rock music. To them the real oldies, from the 18th and 19th century, are not even familiar enough to make fun of.

The same willful ignorance may also applies to music in the traditional Broadway vernacular. For anyone under 50, the foreign language on Broadway isn't Italian, it's show music. Most composers of new shows (if you can find them — new shows or new composers) work in a musical idiom based in Gershwin, for melody, and steeped in Sondheim, for modernity. One form is 80 years old, the other 40. No one's written a hummable, marketable, gotta-climb-the-pop-charts Broadway song in decades. As I've noted before, students in Andrew Sarris' recent course on movie musicals at Columbia University found the music in Fred Astaire films — Gershwin, Berlin, Kern and Porter songs that defines the 30s sophistication and romance — almost impossible to listen to. So for them, the music of "Bohème" is no more alien than the songs in the revivals of "42nd Street," "Oklahoma!" or "Cabaret."

In one way, contemporary rock is closer to opera than to the Broadway style or "classic" rock. Listen to the predominant fashion in rock vocalizing: it's an evocation or parody of operatic singing. The men do their tortured tenor wailing, as if they are straining to hatch a dinosaur egg. The women indulge in coloratura riffs and virtuosa vibrata, seeking a song-ending orgasmic explosion that approximates the climax of a soprano's most taxing aria. This obsessive filigree work began with Whitney Houston and has been the norm since Mariah Carey and Celine Dion became the standard-bearers of thrushdom. It was sanctified, perhaps irrevocably, by nearly every female vocalist (and lots of the males) on "American Idol." Our friend George Grizzard watched each new "Idol" performer do this vocal trampolining, eliding eight or more notes for every one on the sheet music, and shouted at the TV screen, "Just sing the damn song!"

If kids think that's singing, they should come to the Broadway theater to hear rococo vocalizing raised to artistry. If they can get misty over a disease-plot contrivance on the WB, they should catch "Bohème" to discover what a real cry feels like. If they want scintillating spectacle, Luhrmann's got it for them. They might get a first intoxicating taste of all three — drama, glamour and l'amour — in Baz's razzle-dazzle. And, what do you think, it could be habit-forming.