The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Puccini’s gift for heart-touching melody allows both beginners and veterans to connect with his timeless operas in a way that has been largely lost in contemporary music, says John DeMain. He will conduct the Madison Opera’s production of La Bohème this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this Friday night, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center for the Arts, the Madison Opera will perform its production of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen “La Bohème.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $18 to $129 and are available from the Overture Center Box Office (608) 258-4141 or from www.madisonopera.org. Student and group discounts are available.

Puccini’s classic opera tells of the lives, loves and losses of a group of young artists in a bohemian quarter of Paris.

La Bohème has been an audience favorite since its first performance on Feb. 1, 1896 ( below is the original poster from 1896 by Adolfo Hohenstein) at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, and is performed by opera companies around the world.

Its popularity over the past century is undiminished and its ravishing score has inspired generations of artists, including the composer Jonathan Larson, who used it as the basis for his award-winning 1996 musical “Rent,” and Baz Lurhmann, director of the 2001 movie “Moulin Rouge.” It also played a pivotal role in the movie “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage.

La Boheme 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

For more information about the Madison Opera’s production and cast, read the Q&A that The Ear did with Kathryn Smith, the general director of the Madison Opera. Here is a link:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/classical-music-puccini-was-a-master-crafter-of-drama-says-kathryn-smith-the-madison-operas-stages-its-production-of-la-boheme-this-friday-night-and-sunday-afternoon/

By The Ear’s reckoning, John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), has spent close to 50 years in opera. He is the artistic director of the Madison Opera and music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and will conduct the singers, orchestra and choruses for the two performances of “La Bohème.”

He graciously agreed to share his experience and knowledge in an email Q&A with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

What about the story makes “La Bohème” such an enduring classic for both first-timers and veterans?

First of all, it’s a love story involving young adults trying to make it through their young years living from hand to mouth. They are college or post-college age, and are living life on the edge, enjoying great camaraderie, as college roommates enjoy to this day.

We have all lived through the tragedy of disease or plagues affecting various parts of the world in our own time. Mimi has tuberculosis, and we have seen how HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola have taken young lives in our own time, robbing people of the chance to live out their lives and loves. So, there is always some part of a story like this for people, both old and young, to connect with.

And what about the same aspect in the music?

Once we enter into the world of Italian “verismo,”or realism, we basically have music that is timeless. The music vividly underscores the action of the drama in great detail from moment to moment.

The interplay of the various leitmotifs manipulates our emotions, leading us to enjoy a good laugh at the interplay of the guys, or Musetta’s outrageous carrying on to make her “ex” jealous and win Marcello back. Then the music engages us in the great sadness of losing Mimi to her disease and robbing Rodolfo of his loved one ( in the final scene below from a production by the Houston Grand Opera, which John DeMain used to head before coming to Madison).

Our great film composers and composers of musical theater all learned from Puccini how to connect the emotions of the drama to the music and vice-versa.

HGO La Boheme

HGO La Boheme

Is Puccini’s reputation as a serious and innovative opera composer, not just a popular one, being reexamined and revised upward in recent years?

Puccini’s output as a composer was limited both in scope and in number. He focused primarily on opera and gave us 12 works in that form. To this day, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca remain in the top echelon of opera’s most popular works.

Puccini (below) labored over each of his operas for long periods of time, rewriting to get these pieces as close as possible to perfection, creating librettos and music that soars emotionally, melodically and harmonically. His Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), Turandot and even parts of Butterfly are great examples of Italian Impressionism.

But while Bohème has a few touches of impressionistic harmony, most of the opera stays within a late Romantic harmonic vocabulary.

I think we appreciate more than ever Puccini’s capacity to write unforgettable melody that goes to the very core of our being. Indeed, we lament that most contemporary scores can’t achieve that, and therefore, they don’t have the same relationship with our audiences today. (You can hear that in the arias sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Fiamma Izzo in a YouTube video at the bottom. Listen for when the audience applauds Pavarotti singing a high C.)

puccini at piano

Are there special things you would like the public to know about this particular production? Do you have comments about the concept and cast, sets and costumes?

I would like to encourage people who have never been to an opera to come and see La Bohème. There are still people out there who don’t know that we have English titles over the stage that simultaneously translate the opera into English.

The acts are not long, the drama flows at almost the same rate of time as it would if it were just spoken without music. And the young stunning cast we have assembled will thrill young and old alike.

This, like Carmen or Madama Butterfly, is the perfect opera for a first-timer. For the rest of us, it is a chance to thrill once again to one of the most beautiful scores ever composed for the operatic stage.

 


Classical music: Puccini was a master crafter of drama, says Kathryn Smith. The Madison Opera stages its production of “La Bohème” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

November 9, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Anyone want to bet that it qualifies as almost everyone’s first and still favorite opera?

On Friday night, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts, the Madison Opera will perform its production of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen “La Bohème.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickets are $18 to $129 and are available from the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141 or from www.madisonopera.org. Student and group discounts are available.

The classic opera by Puccini (below) tells of the lives, loves and losses of a group of young artists in a bohemian quarter of Paris.

puccini at piano

On Christmas Eve, the poet Rodolfo and the artist Marcello burn pages from Rodolfo’s latest drama, trying to stay warm in their garret. They are joined by their roommates, Colline and Schaunard, and head out to celebrate at Café Momus.

Staying behind, Rodolfo answers a knock on the door and meets his new neighbor, a seamstress named Mimi. The two fall instantly in love, and the opera charts the course of their relationship, as friendship, poverty, and illness intersect in what has often been called “the greatest love story ever sung.”

La Bohème is simply perfect,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s General Director. “The passionate music is perfectly matched to the very emotionally true story of young people dealing with life in all of its happiness and sorrow. Bohème never ages and is perfect for both opera newcomers and opera omnivores.”

La Bohème has been an audience favorite since its first performance on Feb. 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio in Turn, Italy, and is performed by opera companies around the world. Its popularity over the past century is undiminished and its ravishing score has inspired generations of artists, including the composer Jonathan Larson, who used it as the basis for his award-winning 1996 musical Rent, and Baz Lurhmann, director of the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge. It also played a pivotal role in the movie “Moonstruck” with Cher and Nicholas Cage.

“La Bohème is one of the reasons I fell in love with opera and wanted to become an opera conductor,” says John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), Madison Opera’s Artistic Director and conductor. “It has glorious lyricism, engaging and ultimately gripping theater, and is sumptuously written for the orchestra. It is a perfect specimen.”

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The cast features a mixture of returning Madison Opera artists and debuts.

Following her performance at Opera in the Park 2015, Eleni Calenos (below) makes her main stage debut as the seamstress Mimi, a role she has previously performed at Palm Beach Opera.

Palm Beach Opera "La Boheme" dress rehearsal Thursday, January 15, 2015.

Palm Beach Opera “La Boheme” dress rehearsal Thursday, January 15, 2015.

Making their Madison Opera debuts are Mackenzie Whitney (below) in the role of the enamored poet Rodolfo and Dan Kempson, singing the role of his friend and artist Marcello. Whitney recently sang in Rappacini’s Daughter with Des Moines Metro Opera; Kempson has recently sung with Santa Fe Opera and Fort Worth Opera.

Mackenzie Whitney La Boheme

The other bohemian friends are played by faces familiar to the Madison Opera audience. UW-Madison alumna Emily Birsan (below) sings Musetta, Marcello’s on-and-off again lover, a role she just performed at Boston Lyric Opera.

Emily Birsan MSO 2014

Liam Moran returns as the philosopher Colline, following his performance as Don Fernando in last season’s Fidelio. Alan Dunbar (below, in a photo by Roy Heilman), last seen here in The Barber of Seville, sings Schaunard. They are joined by Evan Ross, debuting with Madison Opera as Benoit and Alcindoro.

Alan Dunbar CR Roy Heilman

This traditional staging is directed by David Lefkowich, who directed The Daughter of the Regiment for Madison Opera.

David Lefkowich 2013

Madison Opera’s general manager Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) generously answered an email Q&A for The Ear:

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

What about the story makes “La Bohème” such an enduring classic for both first-timers and veterans?

The story is such a universal one that it is instantly relatable for opera newcomers, but still carries an emotional immediacy for those who have seen it before. A group of 20-something friends struggle financially, have fun together, fall in love, break up and deal with illness and death – this is a story that plays out in real life every day. As audience members, I think we grow with La Bohème: what moves you the most when you are 23 years old might be Act III; later in life, Act IV might strike a stronger chord.

And what about the same aspect in the music?

Puccini’s music is so emotional and melodic that it appeals to every ear, and it is so perfectly tied to the story that it is impossible to separate the two. “O Soave Fanciulla” could only be a love duet, and the heartbreak of Mimi’s phrase, “Addio, senza rancor” sums up every painful romantic breakup in just a few notes. (You can hear soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Rolando Villazon sing “O Soave Fanciulla” in a concert version at the bottom in a YouTube video.) 

Is Puccini’s reputation as a serious and innovative opera composer, not just a popular one, being reexamined and revised upward in recent years?

I think that may be a question for critics and academics! In our world – the performance world – Puccini has always been highly regarded, as his shows have been wildly successful with audiences, regardless of what critics or other composers might write. “La Bohème” was definitely harshly criticized when it was new, with phrases like “musical degradation” tossed about, but it has been one of the most performed operas around the world ever since.

What do you think is the most overlooked or underrated aspect of “La Bohème” and of Puccini in general?

I think people overlook how tight the dramaturgy is. There is not one page of Bohème that could be removed without having the entire structure collapse. Most 19th-century operas can — and do —  benefit from cuts, but Puccini doesn’t waste time, either musically or dramatically. In addition, the music really illustrates the story. There are specific moments where the music tells us what happens on stage, and as long as you obey the music, the story will work.

Are there special things you would like the public to know about this particular production? Do you have comments about the concept and cast, sets and costumes?

This is a traditional production, but that doesn’t mean it looks exactly like every other La Bohème, as every cast and director brings their own ideas and chemistry to the mix.

We have a spectacular young cast who are perfectly matched with each other and will bring this classic story to vivid life.

We have two exciting debuts, with Mackenzie Whitney as Rodolfo and Dan Kempson as Marcello.

Returning to us are Eleni Calenos (Mimì), who sang at Opera in the Park last summer; Emily Birsan (Musetta), who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and who last sang with us in 2010; Alan Dunbar (Schaunard), who was last in Rossini’s Barber of Seville; and Liam Moran (Colline), who debuted in Beethoven’s Fidelio last fall.

Add in our wonderful Madison Opera Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and it will be a musical and dramatic feast.

 


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