Monday, November 1, 2010

Behold the Power of Opera

It wouldn’t be a Bohème blog without mentioning RENT. I love RENT. I saw it before seeing Bohème, and it’s hard for me to separate the two in my mind.

For those of you unfamiliar with RENT, it’s a musical theater piece by Jonathan Larsen that’s based loosely on La Bohème, but set in the 1990’s. The story revolves around four artist friends who encounter love and loss in New York City (like Paris, another haven for those bohemian types.)

Rodolfo the poet becomes Roger, the songwriter/musician. He still struggles with his love for Mimì (who keeps her name but is an exotic dancer with AIDS, not tuberculosis) but knowing she doesn’t have long to live. Marcello the painter becomes Mark, an indie filmmaker whose girlfriend Maureen (Musetta becomes a bisexual performance artist) has just left him for Joanne, a lawyer (who plays a much bigger role than Alcindoro). Larsen modernizes the story further by creating a couple in Schaunard and Colline, who become Angel Dumott Schunard, a gay drag queen percussionist and Tom Collins, a gay philosophy professor. Even the landlord Benoit is represented in the character of Benjamin 'Benny' Coffin III, the bohemians’ landlord and a former roommate of Roger, Mark, Collins, and Maureen.

What is so striking about the update is how much is still the same. Both works frequently rely on recitative singing, a form of rapid dialogue exchange in song, to show people arguing or heated discussions. RENT opens with Roger and Mark burning a manuscript for heat. Much of the opera incorporates phrases from the opera, especially the meeting scene between Roger/Rodolfo and Mimì. The meeting occurs under near identical circumstances, as Mimi knocks at the door, hoping to receive a match for her burned-out candle. Some of the dialogue between the two characters is actually the same as in the opera, as they fumble to find matches and discover they like one another.

RENT premiered 100 years after La Bohème, but so many of the themes are the same: the fleeting nature of life and love, the struggle for artistic independence, the desire to find a place in this world. This is why opera is so touching and long-lasting – centuries after those stories first graced the stage, we are still inspired by the music and characters today.

Ciao for now!

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