1. “Oh, it’s a real weepie,” promises Kushroo Suntook, chairman of the NCPA, where the opera will be staged for the first time in India on February 8, 9 and 11. Giacomo Puccini’s 120-year-old, four-act tragedy tells the tale of six destitute young bohemians, in the Latin Quarter of 1840s Paris, laughing, loving, dreaming and yearning desperately for love. “They’re artists, all of them,” says Suntook. “They’re poor but survive on happiness, and above all romance.” Sax Nicosia, the opera’s director and narrator, calls himself a positive person, “but it makes me cry every time.” Spolier alert – somebody is going to die.
2. You’re probably pronouncing it wrong. La. Bo. Emm
3. It’s Italian and French... The performers sing in Italian but their tale is based on French writer Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (Scenes from the Lives of Bohemians). Sparks fly and new relationships are forged when Rodolfo, one of a jolly gang of young men, finds his pretty neighbour Mimi at his door, looking to light a candle in the dark.
4. …and as gritty as it is grandiose. The opera comes from a period that broke from tradition. Instead of earlier tales of gods and kings, Puccini presented ordinary folk, real problems and relatable emotions.
5. It’s popular for a reason. La Boheme remains beloved because “everyone in life experiences youth, friendship, love, happiness, heartbreak, disappointment and death – which is what the story is about,” says the production’s conductor, Carlo Rizzi. “The fight between chasing your dream and selling out for money is still going on. My kids are in college. Their dorm experiences – being happy with little money, the future so far away – are exactly like the characters’.” Rizzi is confident it will resonate locally: “Mumbai is not Paris, but I’m convinced India has a bohemian side.”
6. The production is pretty unusual. You won’t just see the opera, but also what inspired it. “We will screen subtitles, of course,” promises director and narrator Sax Nicosia. “A transparent screen will also project paintings of Paris from the period and the artwork originally created to promote the show, to make that world come alive.” Murger’s stories will be interspersed with the music. The Symphony Orchestra of India will be right on stage, with Puccini’s score. “This story became immortal through his music, and will excite future generations, as long as love is alive in people’s hearts,” says Olena Tokar, who plays Mimi.
7. The talent is heavyweight too. Rizzi, who conducts with SOI’s Zane Dalal, finished conducting La Boheme at New York’s Metropolitan Opera early this year. Tokar is an award-winning singer who has been playing Mimi since 2015 .
8. It’s all about loving your peeps. Much of the opera revolves around Mimi, and Nicosia says his biggest challenge was to show her hunger for love and life. “She wants to go out, meet people, have experiences,” he says. “But Puccini’s title is not Mimi. This story is about all of them.”
9. Some bits may seem familiar. There is a film version from 1926. Baz Luhrmann produced a modernised version in Australia in 1990 (and many find his Moulin Rouge to be an echo of the opera). The 2005 film based on the Broadway hit Rent is a modern retelling too. Roger and Mimi meet in seedy NYC with the Aids crisis as the backdrop. “I love Rent,” says Nicosia. “It shows how timeless the story is.”
10. Some critics say it’s not sophisticated enough. “Best to ignore them,” says Suntook.