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Puccini’s “La Boheme” a timeless tale of love and loss

Nancy Hermiston

Believe it or not, the roots of box office hits such as “Moulin Rouge!” (2001), or “Rent” (1996), do not lie within Hollywood, or the Broadway stage, but take their cue from western classical music — the opera.

The timeless plot of poor young artists struggling to survive in the Montmartre Quarter of Paris, or New York’s East Village stem from Giocomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” the next opera featuring the UBC Opera Ensemble. The production runs Feb. 8-11 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

Audiences can expect to see 71 vocalists from the UBC School of Music’s Voice and Opera Division, the former stamping grounds of renowned tenor Ben Heppner (BMus’79), and mezzo-soprano Judith Forst (BA’65) as well as a children’s chorus of 13 young singers from the Lower Mainland area.

The production also features 10 students from UBC Theatre, plus a 68-piece student orchestra, the UBC Symphony Orchestra, led by esteemed conductor, Neil Varon, orchestra director at the Eastman School of Music. The students work alongside professionals from the technical world of Vancouver’s performing arts industry.

As one of the world’s most performed operas, “La Boheme” tells the story of six young Bohemians living in Paris’ Latin Quarter. In them we see a poet, a painter, a philosopher, a musician, a seamstress and a singer.

The four men — Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard — share an apartment, but barely make enough money for food. Rodolfo falls in love with Mimi, the consumption-stricken seamstress, and it is through their trials and tribulations that the play unfolds.

Unable to buy her medicine to give her the comfort she needs, Rodolfo breaks up with Mimi, angry with himself for helplessly watching her die.

During Mimi’s final moments, the six friends ban together in the apartment they once shared, having desperately sold their limited possessions to save her. But it is too late — Mimi passes away, but not before she appreciates having her best-loved friends together one last time.

First performed in 1896, the relevance of the opera’s plot to present life and everyday human experiences has withstood the test of time, says Prof. Nancy Hermiston, who heads the voice and opera division at the UBC School of Music.

“It’s so real,” says Prof. Nancy Hermiston of the love, laughter, and tears the characters experience. “I’ve always wanted to do this in a university situation because, you see, ‘La Boheme’ plays out every day in the hallways of the university.”

Whether it’s falling in love at first sight, or witnessing the death of a close friend, we’ve all had these experiences, says Prof. Hermiston.

“We’ve had young students who’ve passed away here at the School of Music, and it’s dealing with death and then through that death, realizing the importance of life, is what I think ‘Boheme’ is all about,” she adds.

Funny to think that this story was penned long before it hit the silver screen, or the Broadway stage. The characters of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Rent” — courtesan Satine and HIV-stricken dancer Mimi — were based on Puccini’s leading lady, created more than 100 years ago.

UBC’s production is brought to life by multiple casts, consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as UBC Music alumni.

“It’s unique that a university does it, first of all,” Prof. Hermiston says. “Not every university has the voices, or the capabilities of doing it.”

“What makes this piece special is our singers, our orchestra, and their ages,” adds Prof. Hermiston on the benefits of having young students perform.

“It’s great if young people can really sing it and these ones can. It just makes it a lot more poignant. It makes it that much more real,” she says.

“I think ‘Boheme’ belongs in a school because it has much to offer us musically and dramatically. It has a tremendous amount to teach us about being good human beings. It affords us the opportunity to re-examine how we’re conducting our lives and to re-evaluate what the real importance of that life is.”

© UBC Faculty of Arts

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