In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Rock Opera

Jan 7, 2011 4:01:00 PM
By BLO Staff

21st century opera production is all about
finding clever ways to land a new generation of butts in seats. Very often this
means adding a modern spin—setting Don
on the streets of Harlem, or setting Cosi fan Tutti in a high school, complete with a Dorabella who
obsessively texts her sister Fiordiligi. Or, if you take La Boheme, update the characters to mid-nineties New York, give the music a rocker feel, and —
Oh, wait. 
If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you knew that RENT is
based on La Boheme. When I first saw RENT as a preteen, while I technically knew
that the source material was La Boheme, I
didn’t know enough about opera to understand what that meant. RENT is chock
full of references to its predecessor—however, there isn’t much crossover
between the two audiences, and references, after all, are meant to be noticed.
So, if you are ever rocking out to RENT in the car, tug on your seatmate’s
sleeve during “La Vie Boheme” and point out Musetta’s waltz, played by Roger on
the electric guitar.
Setting: Boheme: Paris; RENT: NYC
The dread disease: Boheme:
Tuberculosis; RENT: AIDS.
The characters:
      Boheme:                                        RENT:
Marcello, a
Painter                             Mark,
a filmmaker
Musetta, a
singer                               Maureen,
a performance artist
Rodolfo, a poet                                  Roger, a
Mimi, a
seamstress                            Mimi,
an exotic dancer
Colline, a
philosopher                         Collins,
a computer genius
Schaunard, a
musician                       Angel Schunard, a
street performer
Alcindoro, a
councilor                        Joanne, a lawyer
Benoit, the
landlord                           Benny,
the landlord
Other points of
  1. In an early
    scene in Boheme/RENT, Mimi
    knocks on Roger/Rodolfo’s door because her candle has gone out. In the
    resulting scene, Roger lights her candle, sexual tension ensues, Mimi
    loses an object belonging to her (her ring/stash of cocaine), and they
    look for it together. While some of the lines in the scene translate, Boheme-Mimi is a demure little seamstress
    and it is doubtful she would inquire, “they say I have the best ass below 14th street,
    is it true?” If she had even lived below 14th street.
  1. The
    beginning of Mimi’s aria “Si, mi chiamano mimi,” (or, “they call me mimi”)
    is mirrored by the end of the “light my candle” duet in Rent, in which Mimi sings as she
    exits: “they call me…they call me…Mimi.” Aaaand, blackout.
  2. For
    most of the show, Roger, a musician and former guitar hero, is trying to
    write a song.  However, he has
    persistent writers’ block, so all he can play is the theme from Musetta’s
    waltz, “Quando me’n vo.”  The theme also
    plays during moments of high emotion, like at the end when Mimi dies.
    However— Mimi
    doesn’t actually die in RENT,
    she just sees a bright light for a little while and then recovers.
Basically, take La
, change every dimension of the work to line up with the 1990s
instead of the 1890s, including the fundamental musical idiom and language, and
you get RENT. You would probably
never guess it was based on Puccini if you didn’t already know. However, RENT is still almost continuously sung—why
not call it an opera, too? The term “rock opera” is far more closely associated
with musical theater than opera, and maybe we in the opera world should steal
it back. It is definitely in classical opera’s interests to point out that
opera is an incredibly broad category— it’s essentially just a theatrical work
where the mode of communication is singing. Now, I have absolutely no desire
for the Met to put on Jesus Christ
next season, or to put the Broadway musical on the same plane as
Mozart, but it’s worth it to remember that all these stories and musical
traditions are very closely related.
There are also many current productions of La Boheme set in modern times—a soprano
playing Mimi in La Boheme could be
dressed exactly like a broadway belter playing Mimi in RENT .
Putting Puccini’s music on the same stage as the nineties
rebel-punk aesthetic highlights the contrast, sure, but it also shows how well
they go together. Marcello and Rodolfo may not get to rock out exactly the way
that Mark and Roger do, but they still get to make thrilling sounds with their
voices. Listen to both versions—for instance Musetta/Maureen’s music, “Quando
me’n vo”/“Take Me Or Leave Me,” and see how they each move you in different
Now, La Boheme is not the only opera to inspire a modern
musical—it’s also true with Madama
and Miss Saigon, an
adaptation set in Vietnam
(not Japan)
during the Vietnam war. I know there’s at least one more…
Ah yes. Aida is
based on Aida. (Elton John/Verdi)
- Audrey Chait, Brown University

Topics: Student Posts, General Opera

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