Perspective | Why ‘La Bohème,’ the world’s favorite opera, never seems to get old (2023)


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One hundred and twenty-seven years after its premiere at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” arguably remains the most popular opera in the world, with 500 to 600 productions staged every year.

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Just this past week, there were three stagings of “La Bohème” within a short train ride of each other: the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s seemingly unkillable 1981 museum piece production, Washington National Opera’s fresh take on an original 2014 production by Jo Davies, and Opera Philadelphia’s now concluded turn with director Yuval Sharon’s inverted take on the opera, which opens in the gloom of Act IV and builds to the ecstasy of Act I.

Helpless to resist a proverbial Bohemian rhapsody, I went and saw all three. At this point, this tale of an enclave of starving artists falling in love in the garrets of revolutionary Paris has been told so many times, it can feel as flat as the pages it’s printed on. But a few repeated listens through a trio of varied interpretations helped restore some of its seductive depth.


I went partly out of a simple desire to hear the thing again. I love Puccini’s auspicious score, its bustling crowd of little melodies that converge and mature into themes that seem to hold a whole life. I love its clutter of everyday sentimental stuff: Mimi’s lost key, Musetta’s pawned earrings, Colline’s surrendered coat, Marcello’s unfinished painting. And, admittedly, I love its self-referential brevity, the soul of its wit.

(I’m certain that another part of my drive to submit to three rounds of “La Bohème” was just basic standard-issue masculine identification with Rodolfo and Marcello, who labor under the belief that worthwhile art must entail proportionate suffering.)

But mostly I just wanted to know: Why do we keep coming back to “La Bohème”? And how does one keep it from becoming like one of Mimi’s embroideries, i.e. a flower with no fragrance?

Perhaps it’s the timelessness of this inexhaustible opera, itself based on Henri Murger’s novel and play “Scènes de La Vie de Bohème.” Over the decades, directors have taken full and often literal advantage of this quality: Baz Luhrmann placed it in Paris of the 1950s, Stefan Herheim moved it to a modern-day cancer ward, Claus Guth set it in a spaceship careening into the distant future. “La Bohème” is one of the most versatile and relatable works in the repertory. And it’s also sort of the Billy bookcase of operas.


In the case of Washington National Opera’s revived “Bohème,” directed by Peter Kazaras and now onstage at the Kennedy Center, the action unfolds in a postwar Paris similarly rich in artistic activity, charged by revolutionary spirit, and haunted by death and disease. The slight historical repositioning has not altered the story, but has yielded a production of restrained opulence, popping with rich color and texture that focuses attention on the singing.

On opening night, soprano Gabriella Reyes made a fabulous Mimi, her Act I aria (“Mi chiamano Mimì”) an early display of her talent for masking the power of her voice with an arresting fragility. Tenor Kang Wang was a sturdy and robust Rodolfo, imparting lovely softness when he and Mimi meet cute in Act I (“Che gelida manina”) and hard-edged grief to his Act III confession to Marcello (“Mimì è tanto malata!”).

Soprano Jacqueline Echols was an especially beguiling Musetta. Flanked by waiters playing matador with table linens, she rose above Cafe Momus with flamboyant authority, an ideal foil to the potent, smoky baritone and easy comic timing of Gihoon Kim’s Marcello. Also in fine form, baritone Blake Denson and bass Peixin Chen as the poet Schaunard and the philosopher Colline, with Chen beautifully tender in his overthinking ode to his overcoat (“Vecchia zimarra”). Extra credit goes to bass Peter Rose, who dazzled in the dual role of Benoit the landlord and Musetta’s erstwhile sugar daddy Alcindoro. (Artists from the Cafritz Young Artist Program will take on the lead roles for the May 26 performance.)

Conductor (and former music director of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre) Alevtina Ioffe led the Washington National Opera Orchestra with admirable precision and push. The music cohered beautifully with the singers, with concertmaster Oleg Rylatko delivering an impactful performance, especially his icy lines through the frigid Act III. The addition of the Washington National Opera Chorus and Corps Dancers, plus the Washington National Opera Children’s Chorus, gave the production a populous buzz that leaned grand without using spectacle as a crutch.

How strange to see Mimi up and about the very next afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, still struggling with that same stubborn cough, still failing to keep her candle lit, but wide-awake once again to the possibilities of love, i.e. “the first kiss of April.”


Since its company premiere on Nov. 9, 1900, “La Bohème” has shown up at the Met for all but nine seasons and a grand total of 1,367 performances (as of last Wednesday). The current revival of Zeffirelli’s 1981 production stands as the most performed production in the company’s history, with nearly 500 performances, more than twice as many as the next most-performed productions at the Met. (At this rate it will be another century before Mimi catches a break.)

At a recent performance, Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin posted to Instagram that leading the Zeffirelli was “fulfilling my dream.” It’s not a bad shake for audiences either, more accustomed to experiencing this opera led by Met delegates than its music director. (Paolo Carignani and James Gaffigan will also conduct dates through the run.)

Donning a cerulean jacket garnished with a golden braid, Nézet-Séguin was a wildly effective bellows, restoring a roaring flame to Puccini’s score with vigor and volume. He lit up the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with unexpected energy and drama, adeptly accounting for the tendency of the cavernous set to swallow up sopranos. Of the three “La Bohèmes” I saw, this one had me closing my eyes and listening.


Unlike Mimi’s hands, tenor Stephen Costello was quick to warm up through the first act as Rodolfo, and he had wonderful vocal chemistry with soprano Eleonora Buratto’s Mimi, a magnetic and agile singer with a diamond-clear high register. Baritone Davide Luciano struggled here and there to surface as Marcello, a hesitance that made more sense once we encountered soprano Sylvia D’Eramo’s fiery Musetta. And while baritone Alexey Lavrov delivered a sweet-natured Schaunard, Met (and personal) favorite bass-baritone Christian Van Horn was sensational as Colline.

The sets — lavishly destitute — earned applause each time the curtain parted. This production requires three hours and includes two full intermissions to account for its extreme world-building demands: Visionary as he was, “poor” was not primary on Zeffirelli’s mood board. Rodolfo and Marcello’s garret is about as squalid as the capacious loft from “Friends.” Even the bleak checkpoint at the Barrière d’Enfer could not keep out Zeffirelli’s overblown elegance.

But sometimes this push toward grandeur feels unproductively at odds with Puccini’s pull toward intimacy: Cafe Momus is tucked into the underbelly of a town square featuring a donkey, a horse and 238 performers playing merchants, children, a marching band. Since the production premiered in 1981, the Act II set has traveled almost 15 miles rolling on and off the Met stage.

In many ways, this production (now directed by Mirabelle Ordinaire) feels suspended in reverence for itself, like a massive snow globe, complete with 15 pounds of paper snow per show. Its gargantuan scale can also feel like a monument to Zeffirelli’s grasp of the grand. But Nézet-Séguin made clear that it just takes some love and attention to relight its candle, to pull a Mimi and bring it right back to life.

On a recent Sunday at the Academy of Music in downtown Philadelphia, music director Corrado Rovaris led his Opera Philadelphia Orchestra through an especially energized closing performance of “La Bohème” from director Yuval Sharon, who has taken the challenge of resurrecting Mimi more literally. Sharon is the artistic director of the Detroit Opera who recently gave the premiere of his tripartite opera “Proximity” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the latest example of a format-busting approach that extends to his tenure helming the experimental Los Angeles-based company The Industry.


This take on “La Bohème,” produced with the Detroit Opera and Spoleto Festival USA, exploits the built-in modularity of Puccini’s unconventional “quattro quadri” (“four pictures”) structure by flipping and reversing it. Meaning that we open with Mimi’s second and traditionally final appearance at Rodolfo’s door, i.e. the swallow coming back to her nest, and work our way backward to the fateful climax of their first encounter.

Sharon’s treatment also leans the production to 100 minutes with the omission of intermission, the streamlining of sets and slight trims to Act I: Benoit doesn’t come to collect the rent. Love’s rush thus sometimes felt a touch too rushed.

This was a brisk and bristling “Bohème,” the drama of Puccini’s melodies brightened and effortlessly underlining the vocals. Tenor Joshua Blue sang a fine Rodolfo alongside soprano Kara Goodrich’s Mimi, their voices buoyant atop Rovaris’s lithe conducting. Baritone Troy Cook was an alluring Marcello, and soprano Melissa Joseph offered a show-stealing Musetta, my favorite “Quando me’n vo’” of the week, situated in my least favorite Cafe Momus.

Bass Adam Lau as Colline and baritone Benjamin Taylor as Schaunard were, in this vision, the third couple, and sung with an appropriately enhanced (if unexpected) sweetness. And the Opera Philadelphia Chorus and Philadelphia Girls and Boys Choirs provided a wonderful richness that felt intentionally absent from the visuals. A spartan set on a tilted turntable stage is presided over by a single Flavinesque bar of fluorescent light. A fleeting Cafe Momus materializes and disperses. A doorway to nowhere frames falling snow like a sky full of stars. This is a Latin Quarter of the mind.

To assist in shepherding viewers against the natural current of the opera, Sharon has inserted a new character, The Wanderer, a ghostly host of sorts, played here by Anthony Martinez Briggs. The Wanderer’s lines derive from Murger’s play, as well as stage directions translated from the original libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. But uttered through the fourth wall — in English no less — the effect is hammy.


“Maybe it could have all turned out differently,” The Wanderer supposes aloud at several junctures. At the Barriere: “What would have happened if Rodolfo went back inside?” At Cafe Momus: “What would have happened if Musetta stayed silent?” And in the new finale of Act I, he slips from narrator to interloper.

It’s a curious strategy, one that manages to draw explicit attention to our experience of a work of art while simultaneously negating it as a series of deliberate choices. I mean, sure, maybe it all could have turned out differently. (Have you seen “Rent”?) In the end, the addition of a chaperone undermines the argument that “La Bohème” can be effectively rearranged. I found myself greeting his appearances with a groan, like the unsolicited assistance of Clippy.

The reversal did have some compelling effects. There is a longer resonance to Rodolfo’s explanation that in hiding Mimi’s key, he was helping destiny (“aiutavo il destino”). And in the finale wrought from Act I, Rodolfo’s bright idea to tear up the pages of his own play and feed it to the stove crackles with wry irony.


But what good is an emotional roller coaster without the plunge? Even as Mimi and Rodolfo leave hand in hand for Cafe Momus, their love on the wing as the curtain dives to the stage, dread prevails. You know full well how this ending is going to begin. It’s only a matter of hours before some other Mimi drops her key and some other Rodolfo seals their fates. And we’ll keep buckling in for the ride, again and again.

It could be the music and the singing that keep us coming back to “La Bohème.” It could be the spectacle and drama we’ve been trained to expect. Or it could be something far more simple: That we’ve all loved, we’ve all lost, and we’ll all continue to do so until nobody’s watching.

La Bohème runs at the Washington National Opera though May 27 and at the Metropolitan Opera through June 9.


Why La bohème is the best opera? ›

The first opera to reveal Puccini's true genius was 1896's La Boheme. The composer's imaginative treatment of character and situation, his sure instinct for dramatic and comic effects, and above all his radiant, supremely expressive musical portraiture have helped make La Boheme one of the world's most popular operas.

What makes La bohème memorable? ›

One of the biggest highlights of La bohème is the romantic relationships that take place between Rodolfo and Mimì as well as Musetta and Marcello. Their passionate (and often complicated) relationships will set your heart aflutter! You know that feeling you get in your gut when you're in love?

Is La bohème a good first opera? ›

But no matter how it's produced, La bohème remains a firm favourite, and will be performed for years to come, making it a great opera for beginners to attend to see what all the fuss is about!

What do you feel after watching the La bohème opera? ›

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Puccini's La Boheme. After watching this opera I became much more familiar with The New City Opera and the Lincoln Center Opera House. I not only learned much more about opera itself; I also was able to discover a new personal musical liking.

What is considered the most beautiful opera? ›

1. The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1786.

Which opera is one of the most popular? ›


The most played opera in the world with 871 performances in the analyzed period.

Is La bohème generally considered a masterpiece? ›

La bohème was Puccini's fourth opera and is widely considered a masterpiece. A master of the verismo style, Puccini was especially sympathetic to the life of the young Parisian bohemians, having himself been a poor artist in his youth.

What style of opera is La bohème? ›

La Bohème | Romantic Opera, Love Story & Music | Britannica.

What style is La bohème? ›

An Opera by Giacomo Puccini. La bohème is a warhorse of the operatic repertory, one of the most frequently performed around the world, and for excellent reason. It is a triumphant blend of grim reality and soaring romanticism.

What is La bohème opera about? ›

La bohème is based on Henry Murger's novel Scenes de la vie de Bohème. Four struggling bohemians – a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher are living together in Paris, when one freezing Christmas Eve their lives are changed forever.

What is the meaning of La bohème opera? ›

La Bohème, meaning "The Bohemia," is an operatic portrait of bohemian life and love in Paris during the 19th century. Giacomo Puccini, one of the most successful composers of Italian opera, composed La Bohème in 1896 with the help of librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.

Is La bohème a romantic opera? ›

First performed on February 1, 1896, Puccini's romantic opera is one of the best known in the repertoire. The story follows Bohemian writer Rodolfo and seamstress Mimì's whirlwind romance, as both struggle with life as impoverished Parisians.

What is it about opera that people like? ›

The point of opera is not just the music, or just the singing, or just the staging, but how the entire production comes together as a holistic, extravagant sensation. The audience is meant to get lost in the entire opera.

What do you feel after watching the opera? ›

Watching opera can be a great way to both improve your social life, as well as find a source of entertainment and relaxation. The music, stories, and creative interpretation of everything happening on stage is sure to draw you in.

What is the ending of La bohème? ›

Rodolfo tells Marcello that he wants to separate from Mimì, blaming her flirtatiousness. Pressed for the real reason, he breaks down, saying that her illness can only grow worse in the poverty they share. Overcome with emotion, Mimì comes forward to say goodbye to her lover.

What kind of person likes opera? ›

Opera lovers are imaginative and insightful while people who like acoustic tunes are talkative and energetic, say scientists.

What is the hardest opera song to sing? ›

Many operas are profoundly difficult for different reasons. Zerbinetta has one the most difficult arias called “Großmächtige Prinzessin” (Zerbinetta's Monologue) from the German opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss.

When did opera lose popularity? ›

The chart shows that opera ceased to exist as a contemporary art form roughly around 1970.

Where is opera most popular today? ›

1. La Scala, Milan, Italy – the world's most famous opera house. La Scala, or to give it its full name, the Teatro alla Scala, might not be the biggest opera house in the world, but it is the most revered.

What country is most famous for opera? ›

La Scala, Milan, Italy

Milan's Teatro alla Scala is perhaps the most famous opera house in the world, the one most associated with “opera.” Built in 1778 with four tiers with separate loges, it is the home of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.

What is the most famous part of La Boheme? ›

Arguably the most famous song from La bohème is 'Quando m'en vo', more commonly known as 'Musetta's Waltz'. This song is sung by the character Musetta who is Marcello's on again, off again girlfriend.

How long does La Boheme opera last? ›

The performance lasts about 2 hours 35 minutes, including one interval.

Is La Boheme funny? ›

La bohème contains moments of high comedy, as funny as any opera buffa, which add poignancy to the tragedy.

Does La Bohème have a happy ending? ›

The original version ends with the character of Mimi dying tragically in the arms of her erstwhile lover Rodolfo, because as poor, bohemian artists in Paris, neither could afford treatment for her tuberculosis. In the version Farias wrote, however, Rodolfo later wishes upon a star, and Mimi comes back to life.

In what style of opera is La Bohème quizlet? ›

La Boheme is a famous Romantic Period opera.

Who created some of the best loved operas like La Bohème? ›

Born into a family of musicians and composers, Puccini became the leading Italian composer of his generation. Puccini's operas are among the most frequently performed and best-loved operas in the entire repertoire and include La bohème, Tosca and Madam Butterfly (Madama Butterfly).

What is the most important opera during the Romantic period? ›

La Traviata - Verdi

The tragic love story of courtesan, Violetta and bourgeoisie, Alfredo from Verdi's La Traviata could not be left off this list!

Is La Bohème sad? ›

It's sad indeed, but her reality was relatively common in the 1830s, when the story takes place. The real tragedy lies with Rodolfo; and the unsung hero[ine] of our story, Musetta. (We'll discuss her later.) Rodolfo is a young poet, a rebel Bohemian, handsome, charming, and poor.

What attracts people to opera? ›

When you see an opera, you're not only there for the beautiful (and we mean beautiful) music and extraordinary singing, you'll also experience a visual feast and go through an emotional experience. Nothing tugs at the heartstrings, brings tears to our eyes, or gives us belly laughs quite like a night at the opera.

What makes opera so special? ›

The unique thing in opera is the use of music to convey an entire story/plot. This is based on the feeling that music can communicate people's reactions and emotions better than words (read or spoken) or pictures.

Why is opera so emotional? ›

All human passions are represented in opera. Love, Tragedy and Death are often at the heart of the plot. The characters, sometimes torn between their feelings and their duty, are confronted with extraordinary situations and are carried away by their heightened feelings.

What makes an opera beautiful? ›

The combination of dramatic narrative, stagecraft and music, and especially the range and vulnerability of the human voice, make opera the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion.

Do people sleep at the opera? ›

Other people are sleeping too, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the performance. And in many operas, someone is sleeping onstage too. In Die Walküre, Wotan puts his daughter Brünnhilde to sleep until a hero can pass through impenetrable fire to awaken her.

What is the etiquette for opera? ›

A good tip is to unwrap any cough drops, turn off your phone, and put your purse and coat under your chair before the performance starts. Please silence your cell phones, alarms, and other audible electronic devices before the opera begins. But, feel free to check in before the concert or tweet a photo!

Is Moonstruck based on La Bohème? ›

The world of Moonstruck is a romantic wonderland that takes tonal inspiration from the Puccini opera, La Bohème. One of its most memorable scenes features Loretta attending La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera House with Ronny.

Is La bohème generally considered masterpiece? ›

La bohème was Puccini's fourth opera and is widely considered a masterpiece. A master of the verismo style, Puccini was especially sympathetic to the life of the young Parisian bohemians, having himself been a poor artist in his youth.

What is the most important opera house of all time? ›

La Scala, Milan, Italy

Milan's Teatro alla Scala is perhaps the most famous opera house in the world, the one most associated with “opera.” Built in 1778 with four tiers with separate loges, it is the home of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.

What is known as the most important opera house in Italy? ›

Completed in 1737, Teatro San Carlo is Europe's oldest continuously active opera house. It's also one of the most celebrated, perhaps only eclipsed by La Scala in prestige among the world's most important opera theaters.

In what style of opera is La bohème? ›

The movement into the final years of the 19th century then created some of Puccini's most well-known works, in which “La Bohème”, amongst others including “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly”, fall. These operas, of the post-Romantic operatic tradition, followed the 'Verismo' genre (c.

What was the quote from La bohème? ›

La bohème (1896)Edit

There are many things that I want to tell you -- well, really, only one -- but that one is as large as the ocean -- as the ocean is deep and infinite, so is my love for you and it will be for all my life!

When did opera become most popular? ›

By the Baroque era (1600–1750), opera had taken Europe by storm and was a spectacular, expensive affair full of florid arias and ornate stage sets with moving parts. One of the greatest composers of Italian Baroque opera was a German who lived most of his life in London—Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759).

What makes the opera house unique? ›

The Sydney Opera House constitutes a masterpiece of 20th century architecture. Its significance is based on its unparalleled design and construction; its exceptional engineering achievements and technological innovation and its position as a world-famous icon of architecture.

Why was opera so important? ›

But why is opera so important? “Because it offers sincere reflection on who we are and how we relate to others and what it means, collectively, and individually, to be human. Watching opera allows us to experience emotional and imaginative truths and share profound and transformative cultural experiences,” says Margie.

Why is opera so important in Italy? ›

The opera represents most if not all of the major features of Italian culture. It is a metaphor for Italy itself, as it encompasses music, dramatic action, public spectacle and pageantry, and a sense of fate.

What are the four important features of Italian opera? ›

An opera is composed of four essential elements: the text ('libretto') and the music, the singing and the staging. The libretto is the 'script' of an opera.

Is opera still popular in Italy? ›

Many operas have been composed by Italians — Verdi, Puccini and Rossini, to name three notables — so, no surprise opera performances are especially popular in Italy.

What is the meaning of La bohème in English? ›

The meaning of “La Bohème” is “The Bohemian”. La Bohème is of the Chanson genre, which means it is a French lyrics-driven song. The main theme of the song is about longing for the happier days of youth despite poverty. The lyrics of the song La Bohème are about a painter reminiscing about the olden days in Montmartre.


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