La Bohéme Refurbished

Posted on January 26th, 2011 by

As we continute to study in London, many of my fellow students noted that London has a very clever way of blending the old and new together and refurbishing history or classics. I’ve been much more keen to this thought as I continue to enjoy the time I have left in England. The “theatres” we’ve been seeing have shown the same type of sentimental attachment: ornate, gold rococo artwork along the proscenium and the boxes (for which tickets are still sold, and are still most expensive), grandiose chandeliers and thick, velvet grand drapes, have shown up in many of our visits.

You would think Puccini’s masterwork, La Bohéme would be shown in equal extravagance, but when we walked up the stairs of the Soho Theatre, it was clear I was in for something completely different. Built in 2000, Soho’s blackbox theatre seats 14 people in 10 rows of padded benches, the bottom two rows situated at stage level, and therefore right in the eyes of the actors, with the rest of the rows gradually rising behind. I looked at my program again. I began to really understand why the show was billed “Opera Up-Close.” Furthermore, the performance space was littered with three “rooms” separated by half-finished walls. The first was a dark bedroom door in the living room of a pair of starving artists who’s sitting space was covered with pizza bottles, film and album covers, attempted books and canvases, and a computer corner. The second, a kitchen lit with an Ikea lamp, hosting stalagmites of around 40 liquor bottles on what should be a counter. The third was a hallway with a flickering fluorescent tube light that mocked any entrance to the flat. The combination is hardly the expected digs for a well-known opera.

Nonetheless, the show was sold out, boasting a range of high-brow audience members with coiffed hair and pumps to intellectuals and students laughing and following along with the new, rather cheeky translation. I even heard the woman behind me condescendingly joke that “The only place where I worry about my program getting stolen is, naturally, Covent Garden, where the average income a year per person is somewhere around £100,000.” In contrast with the stage, the whole event seemed very posh and chic. And then the pianist came on, sans orchestra. The lights dimmed, with help from the Ikea lamps. The vocalists came on, dressed in ripped Wranglers and flannel, and the show began.

For those less familiar, the plot revolves around two artists living together—Marcello and Rodolfo. Almost by accident, Rodolfo meets Mimi, a flower maker, and the two fall in love. Rodolfo takes Mimi out with his friends that night to a bar where Marcello sees his former lover, the beautiful Musetta and gets jealous. The two fight and make up on and off throughout the action. Mimi is very sick and Rodolfo breaks up with her until finally, Musetta finds the worsening Mimi and brings her up to the house where she dies in Rodolfo’s arms.

Never have I heard opera this immediate and modern: within the first moments, Rodolfo sang the phrase, “What’s up?!” As the plot unfolds, we were invited into the lives of a few working class artists in modern Soho rather than the trials of turn of the century Paris. Still, the music and wording flowed quite effectively. The ease of such an adaptation was quite intriguing.

Act I down, we all were told to leave the theatre while the crew reset the stage, and we were corralled down in the theatre’s bar. To our surprise, the next act was staged in the bar amongst the audience members and even included some of the bartenders! I watched as a man in the audience chit-chatted with one of the singing bartenders in between choral bits. One of the actresses walked across a table right in front of me. Another audience member surely felt the drips from a tipped wine glass. Even people on the street watching from the windows were incorporated into the action, whether they knew what was happening or not. This act was as much about the people around it as it was about its characters.

I left the theatre wondering even more about translation. I think, especially after how much I was moved by this version, that theatre must be localized—we have to translate not only the text, but also the experience. It’s just like refurbishing a house: a beautiful historical structure can still have the amenities and necessities of modern life. La Bohéme’s beautiful historical structure, through Soho Theatre’s translation, was comfortable and relatable without a rococo ceiling and chandelier.

La Bohéme at Soho Theatre – Trailer


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