By Paul Horsley
La Bohème is a cradle-to-the-grave kind of opera. No matter where you are in life, it has something to offer. “Each time you revisit this piece you see a whole different aspect of it, and I think that’s probably its greatest strength,” says Linda Brovsky, who directs the Lyric Opera’s production of Puccini’s classic that opens March 15th. “You’ll always find something different.” Young people can connect with the blush of first love that Mimì and Rodolfo feel in the first half of the opera, but grasping the opera’s more serious later themes of poverty, illness and death requires some maturity.
“When you’re young, you concentrate on Acts 1 and 2,” says Linda, who has brought memorable productions of The Barber of Seville and Eugene Onegin to the Lyric, in addition to credits with the companies of San Francisco, Santa Fe, Seattle, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Glimmerglass and many others. “I think you have to be in your 30s and 40s to get Act 3, and in an odd sort of way you have to have experienced the loss of a loved one to really understand Act 4.”
Sure, young folks can experience the weepy thunder-clap of Act 4 as a tragic end (spoiler alert!) to a short life. “But for someone who has lived and has actually gone through those things in their own life, there’s a knowing and an understanding of the greater picture.”
It helps that the title character of Bohème, the seamstress Mimì, is the most adorable heroine in all of opera. Trusting, loving, vulnerable, but with a core of inner strength that draws the impetuous Rodolfo toward her, she is the archetype of the operatic heroine we love to watch die. Enter Katie van Kooten, the soprano with Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and Covent Garden credits who stole the show in the Lyric’s 2011 Marriage of Figaro. Though she says she can’t immediately relate to Mimì’s wallflowerish personality, she says she “gets” the depths and dimensions of true love that we all yearn for early in life. “All I can do it do it as me,” says the soprano, a veteran of the role whom the Houston Chronicle said “conveyed Mimì’s bravery, passion and integrity in great emotional outpourings.”
“The thing that I can relate to in Mimì is that I feel things deeply,” Katie says. “I think she feels things incredibly deeply. She ponders things away in her heart. Maybe they’ll never be shared. She keeps this kind of emotional journal of what’s going on with her, so in the moments that we get to see her heart, it’s all the more powerful because she doesn’t force her way into the spotlight.” Strong as she may be, Katie says that the sheer emotion of the role, and the brilliance of Puccini’s writing, has a predictable impact each time she prepares the role. “There are moments that I can’t even get through it the first couple of times, because it’s so real and so touching and so practical.”
She points to a moment in Act 4 where the poet Rodolfo says she’s as beautiful as the dawn, while the dying Mimì points out that he’s mistaken: She’s as beautiful as a sunset. “And it gets me every time. It’s so poetic, so poignant—and it’s so her. It’s the simplest way of reprimanding him, of reminding him that the sun is setting.”
Still, not everything in Bohème is doom and tragedy. “It’s a sad show but there are a lot of light-hearted moments,” Katie says. “They’re are in the prime of their youth. Love is meant to be lived and enjoyed to the fullest.” The Lyric has assembled an aptly youthful cast: Giorgio Berrugi is Rodolfo, Ellie Dehn is Musetta, Lucas Meachem is Marcello, Ben Wager is Colline and Marcus DeLoach is Schaunard.
Also see “Surprised by Her Own Voice: Five Questions for Katie Van Kooten” here.
La Bohème runs March 15th through the 23rd at the Kauffman Center (816-471-7344 or kcopera.org).
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