Spotlight on: LA BOHEME

La bohème

At Seattle Opera May 2020

Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica
Based on Scènes de la vie de Bohème by Henri Murger

The Story

Long Story Short

There’s no day but today when you’re young, artsy, broke, and in love.

Who’s Who?

Mimì is a young seamstress suffering from tuberculosis.

Rodolfo, a poor young poet, has an idealistic and impractical approach to life.

Musetta is a fun party-girl and flirtatious coquette.

Marcello is Rodolfo’s roommate and Musetta’s on-again-off-again-boyfriend. Fun-loving and boisterous, he has a short temper.

Schaunard, a musician, is the only one of these artistically-inclined bohemians to make any money. A generous person, he spends whatever he makes on his friends.

Colline, a scholar and philosopher, lives with Rodolfo, Marcello, and Schaunard in a small room downstairs from Mimì.

La bohème 101 Podcast

Where’d They Get This Story?

From Scènes de la vie de Bohème, a collection of autobiographical short stories by Henri Murger. (Like the fictional Rodolfo, Murger did indeed edit a journal about fashions in ladies’ hats called The Beaver.) The characters of Murger’s book are based on people he knew, as he was living the life of a Bohemian in Paris’s Latin Quarter at the time (the 1840s). Case in point: a playwright came to see Murger to ask whether he could turn his stories into a drama. He found Murger wearing only a sheet, since a friend had borrowed Murger’s one set of clothes for a job interview. The play became a hit, Murger made a little money, and he published his collected Bohemian stories as a book in 1851.

Where, When, & Why Was this Opera Written?

Puccini had written his first great opera in 1893: Manon Lescaut. But finding a librettist who could satisfy him was a nightmare. One of Manon Lescaut’s seven librettists was composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who’d had a big hit in 1892 with his own opera, Pagliacci. Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni (whose Cavalleria rusticana won an important competition in 1890) were in fierce competition with Puccini, now that Giuseppe Verdi had finally retired and there was no longer one dominant voice in Italian opera. Puccini stole Leoncavalla’s idea of making an opera from Murger’s Bohemian stories, and completed his opera first. (Leoncavallo’s La bohème premiered a year later, in 1897.) The librettists who had collaborated with Puccini on La bohème, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, went on to write for him the librettos to Tosca and Madame Butterfly—truly a winning team.

The Inspiration for the Broadway hit RENT

Fans of the musical (rock opera) RENT will recognize not just plot and characters, but famous tunes from the opera that inspired that 1996 show. Billy Aronson, a behind-the-scenes figure in the musical’s creation, brought the idea to re-envision the classic opera La bohème set in the streets of contemporary New York City to Jonathan Larson. Aronson came to New York in 1983 after studying drama at Yale University. He lived in Hell's Kitchen just up the street from Lincoln Center and would attend opera in his spare time, falling in love with Puccini’s masterpiece in particular. "I had this idea for a Bohème for now — for our generation that had sort of a 'noise' and [that] captured the un-Bohèmeness of it: not sweet and not luscious," recalled Aronson in 2016 Playbill article. "Since I don't write music, I went looking for a composer, and I was affiliated with Playwrights Horizons, so Ira Weitzman, the director of musical theatre there, recommended two composers, one of whom was Jonathan Larson."

Listen to the Music

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