La Bohème – The Perfect First Opera?

Director Kathleen S. Belcher ponders why La bohème remains one of the world’s most popular and relatable operas.

If you’re a newcomer to the art form of opera, La bohème is often described as the perfect “first opera” to experience. Why is that?

The Bohemian friends trick the landlord Benoit to avoid paying their rent. Photo: Cory Weaver

Is it because the story is so universal, that it has been remade repeatedly in contemporary settings, like the musical RENT or parts of Moulin Rouge (which is a mixture of La bohème and La traviata, another good “first opera” choice)?

Is it because the music is so interwoven into our collective consciousness, that we hear the music in the theatre and have a light-bulb moment: “hey, I know that song!”?

Is it because we can all find a bit of ourselves in one of those Bohemians onstage? I think it is probably a combination of all three of these things, and the powerful, emotionally-charged score that Puccini has gifted to us.

While none of us have likely had a friend die of tuberculosis, we have all experienced the remorse and heartbreak of lost love. Some of us may struggle with the knowledge that we never told a loved one how much we loved them before they left us. Some of us may wrestle with poverty in our lives, either first-hand, in the past, or with people close to us.

The friends try to help Mimi, who has tuberculosis and has collapsed on her way to see Rodolfo. Photo: Cory Weaver

While there is nothing romantic about struggling to pay the rent, heat our homes, or battle illness, there is hope and joy in these young Bohemian’s lives. They revel in an unexpected windfall and share it with the people they love; they throw caution to the wind and throw themselves into passionate relationships; they take the time to experience real life—not through the lens of an Instagram feed, but by actually experiencing life in the moment.

In these fast-moving times, we forget to stop and talk to each other…to let the music wash over us and feel the emotions that emerge, and most importantly, to be courageous enough to love unconditionally and with abandon, like Puccini’s young Bohemians.

These notes also appear in the printed program book at Lyric Opera’s performances of La bohème, November 9, 13, 15 and 17 at the Kauffman Center. Tickets start at $29. Available at kcopera.org

Kathleen Smith Belcher is in her 17th year as a member of the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera, including the Met’s new production of Porgy and Bess. She has also collaborated on numerous “Live in HD” broadcasts. She has worked extensively with many opera companies, including San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and others. 


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