Friday, May 1, 2020

Lessons in 'Adulting' from Puccini’s La bohème

Seattle Opera marketing image for La bohème. Philip Newton photo. Tinashe and Brennin Hunt in RENT Live on Fox
By Naomi André

In this post, I write from my own perspective—a college professor—who teaches students the same age as the young artists from La bohème. An important lesson my students teach me is that times have changed: No matter how much I think I understand (or remember) from my own path in life, I am constantly bumping into how the transition from student to professional is very different than when I graduated.

Whether set in the 1830s Parisian Latin Quarter, the recent past, or in the present, Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème (1896) never stops teaching us about what it means to grow up. This opera occupies an uncanny position in the repertoire: while fitting within the norms of its time, the work also broke new ground. Today, bohème hits close to home for a new reason. Rather than tuberculosis—a key element in Puccini’s opera—we are living in the time of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

The setting has changed, but the takeaways remain.The young bohemians in Puccini’s opera are not students, but they share that sense of being “in between” something—a late adolescent youth and finding a foothold in employment, romance, and personal development. The liminality of experiences from the past moving into the future is something that Puccini’s young bohemian artists and my students have in common. An element that remains true in the classroom, especially as I get older, is that students tend to feel as though they can survive anything. With their energy and enthusiasm, they articulate what it means to fall in love, how to respond to disappointment, and how to distinguish themselves from older generations.

The core of Puccini’s opera is an ensemble cast of six young people burgeoning on adulthood—such as paying their rent on time, having enough money for food and heat, and saving money when they earn it. They are “adulting,” trying to find work through freelance gigs, figuring out how to make their way in life.

Dr. Naomi André, Seattle Opera Scholar in Residence. Courtesy of the 2020 issue of LSA Magazine.

The opera opens with two roommates, Rodolfo and Marcello, struggling as young artists trying to hide inside their art to cloak the mundane banalities of life. They are freezing. They want girlfriends. They voluntarily burn Rodolfo’s play just for a few moments of warmth from a meager fire. The two men complain; however, they are jocular about it, and we in the audience root for them and hope they will get through this smoothly. 

Similarly, today, those who try to forge a path in the creative arts will encounter a certain level of hardship. Even for those who are talented, who earn degrees, attain internships, and network with indefatigable energy, the payoffs can still be grim. The intersection of gender, race, and economic access play critical roles for those who have the funds to get started and a safety net to help buffer the inevitable bumps along the way.

At its core, La bohème is a love story, but it is driven less by an action-packed narrative and more by the setting and nuances of how the two main couples (Rodolfo-Mimì, Marcello- Musetta) leave adolescence and figure out who they are. The two couples seem to sabotage their own relationships through their immaturity and fickleness. We are not sure why Marcello and Musetta are broken up in the first act, and we watch the roller coaster of their relationship as they get back together in Act 2, separate at the end of Act 3, and re-connect in the finale of Act 4.

When Mimì and Rodolfo confront the problems in their relationship in Act 3, we learn that Rodolfo is not really jealous of Mimì’s supposed flirtatiousness with other men, as he first mentioned to Marcello. Instead, he is afraid of not being able to take care of her with her coughing and increasing weakness. It is still winter, just a few months after they first got together on Christmas Eve. Rather than break up immediately, they decided to stay together through the winter, since it is terrible to be alone during the cold.

Neither Mimì (Jennifer Black) nor Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano) can face being alone in the winter, so they agree to stay together until spring. Elise Bakketun photo 
Today, many millennials are familiar with “cuffing season,” the practice of connecting with a fling for the winter holidays only until the weather gets better. As in the present where such “cuffing” can easily lead to unpredictable emotions and hurt feelings, we see that this “situationship” of a relationship with its ambiguous temporality does not work well for Rodolfo or Mimì; in their case, they love each other deeply, but are afraid to make a formal commitment.

The struggles these young artists face are likely familiar to many emerging artists today, especially as cities go through urban development and gentrification. Puccini’s opera presents the texture of these Parisians’ lives, as they come to grips with finding affordable living and housing, trying to establish themselves in the creative economy, and working out their difficulties in relationships.

Not quite settled in any of these arenas, the bohemians are particularly vulnerable to unpredictable new challenges, such as sickness and disease—once again, this could be tuberculosis as in the original story, HIV/AIDS like in the musical adaption, Rent, or even COVID-19. The stakes are high as the friends confront realities of a cold world that they are still learning how to navigate. The “safety net” of their good intentions is not strong enough to save them all. The tragedy at the end is that they do not have all of the tools they need for survival.

When I teach Puccini’s La bohème in classroom settings, I love sharing the magic of falling in love at the end of the first act where Rodolfo and Mimì seem to be the center of the universe, or the witty self-centeredness of Musetta in the second act when she shamelessly flirts with Marcello, while also trying to make him jealous. I find such a recognizable humanity in these characters, and my students—who have explained the story to me in terms of adulting, cuffing and more—see themselves in these young bohemians.

Naomi André, PhD is Seattle Opera’s Scholar in Residence and a professor at the University of Michigan.

Seattle Opera's 2013 La Bohème production. Elise Bakketun photo
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