I couldn’t possibly write anything grown-up about La Bohème, which I’ll be seeing tonight at the Canadian Opera Company. Like many of the operas I loved before becoming sophisticated, the music is more like a part of my body than anything I experience with my mind. So, I give you my personal history with it, in the form of a list of trivialities.
1. Bohème was my first “favourite opera,” the first opera that really sunk its manipulative little hooks into my teenage brain. I got there through a “best of opera” compilation that included Che gelida manina. The operas I loved back then remind me now of taking the bus to the mall and having a lot of feelings.
2. The part I still love the most is the first 20 minutes or so, with the friends grumbling, celebrating, and carousing before Mimi shows up. The first couple of bars promise that exciting things are about to happen.
aside: Carreras sure was handsome back then.
3. The part I put on opera mixtapes, however, was the Mimi/Marcello bit from Act III.
4. I couldn’t afford to buy opera box sets (and wouldn’t buy “highlights” discs on principle) so I got them out from the library instead. The recording I learned the music from featured Renata Scotto and Gianni Poggi. Later, looking it up in the Penguin Guide, I discovered that it’s considered to be rather dreadful. I eventually bought myself a cheapo set featuring Miriam Gauci. It was unsatisfying.
5. Tonight will be my fifth live Bohème, I think. This is the quintessential date-night opera, but I’ve always attended alone. The same will be true tonight.
6. My first was at Edmonton Opera in 1999, and I cried, of course. After I became a full-blown opera lover, my mother became a member of the opera guild, primarily for my benefit. It mostly meant I could hang around backstage with her before and after the performance (one chorus member taught us how to correctly pronounce the word latte). I also had good access to posters. After that first Bohème, I took a poster to the Mimi’s dressing room to have it signed. Her name was Monique Pagé, she was French-Canadian, and she was very kind to me.
7. My second Bohème, in 2005, was an accident. I had just moved to Toronto, wanted to Take Advantage of the Cultural Offerings, and fixed my intentions on a string quartet performance. My path took me past the COC’s erstwhile venue on Front Street, and on my way to the chamber music someone called out: “want some opera tickets?” Turned out I did. After some mild haggling I gave him $25 for an orchestra-level seat, perhaps too much given that the performance had already started. The ushers were kind enough to let me in during Act I to stand in the back. I was bored of Bohème by then, but I still cried at the end.
8. Against the Grain Theatre’s version had a modernized libretto that included the phrase: “the first chance I get, I’ll make an appointment for some manscaping.” That’s the main line from Joel’s libretto that I remember. I still cried at the end.
9. Bohème was a supremely comforting opera for me as someone on the cusp of adulthood. It’s about young artists in the big city! They don’t have money or success, but they are full of energy. They eat, drink, and carouse; they fold themselves into the bustle of the city; they form deep and close friendships; they embark on exhilarating romances. And they work on their art. Those were all things I wanted for myself. The prospect of dying of TB wasn’t a concern.
10. I’ve met people who never really grow out of the things they loved when they were young; whatever movies and albums blew their mind at age 16 are on their top five lists for all time. Perhaps all of us are like this at heart, but for anyone aspiring to connoisseurship it’s imperative to develop and discard.
11. There are so many reasons for an advanced opera-lover to discard Bohème: its postcard nostalgia, its cold and cloying manipulations, the fact that it’s comfort food for your aunties and a cash cow for opera companies who churn out plush productions in soft colours season after season. If you go to the opera with any regularity, Bohème’s popularity will virtually ensure that you soon tire of it.
12. Even so. When I think of how many great operas are dull or straight-up incoherent in patches, how many attempt sweetness and fail, how many depict love in a way that seems mechanical and foreign, or don’t make me cry in the sad scenes, it’s hard to see Bohème as anything other than a masterwork. It is precisely what it needs to be.