Last night I saw a production of La bohème that made me realize something: call me old fashioned, but when I go to the opera, I go to hear beautiful singing. This is because quality singing is the only practice that opera does better than any other popular discipline. Sure, there is good singing to be found in the recital and concert hall, but for me the real blood-and-guts singing has always remained within the opera house.
It may sound sacrilegious, but when I go to the opera I do not invest that much of my interest in staging, costumes, acting or set design. These elements can be found elsewhere: If I want drama, I go to the movies, see a play, or watch TV; if I care about poetry and language, I pick up a book; if I want movie-star glamour, I open up the latest issue of Vogue.
But, if I want high-octane-change-your-life singing, I go to the opera. It’s what the opera house does best. And, while many operatic performances utilize fashion, interesting staging, and exciting visuals to great effect, these elements cannot rescue an opera from poor singing.
I write all this because these were the thoughts going through my head last night in the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, during a performance of La bohème. Presented by the Martina Arroyo Foundation, the evening enacted the organization’s mission statement: the foundation’s goal is “to prepare and counsel young singers in the interpretation of complete operatic roles for public performance.” And I believe it is because of this singer-based concentration that I experienced one of the most satisfying nights at the opera I’ve had in a long time.
Certainly, one might easily have found the whole project to be stiflingly conservative. Limited by the educational needs of the singers, the production was a rather simple iteration of Puccini’s classic story of love and sickness on the fringe. Avoiding anachronism, Ian Campbell’s direction deployed one slight conceptual innovation, which was to stage the entire narrative within the confines of Marcello and Rodolfo’s apartment. However, this concept was not really an attempt at theorization, but more of a streamlining mechanism, which allowed the drama to unfold seamlessly.
Consequently, the evening’s merits hinged on singing. Yes, Rodolfo may have been slightly shorter than Mimì, and all of the performers lacked a certain movie-star veneer. And the direction was a tad rudimentary. However, I simply did not care. I did not care at all, because the singers possessed something infinitely more rare, something exponentially more important: talent.
For example, Dángelo Diaz’s Rodolfo possessed a ringing ssnor, with fluid phrasing and easy flexibility above the passaggio. And as his Mimì, the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Jessica Sandidge spun luminous strands of silver vocalism, creating a subtle characterization that was not overwrought, yet deeply complex.
Marcello, sung by Jeff Byrnes, was equally competent, with a well-produced baritone and a realistic, measured approach to his character’s sharp turns of jealousy and amiability. His chemistry with Rodolfo was especially charming and authentic, instead of the faux-bro gesticulations one often sees. However, the evening’s triumph belonged to his Musetta, the excellent Claire Coolen. The soprano’s singing and deportment belied her status as a young artist, and her musicality showed both an adept instrument as well as a close attention to detail.
In the supporting roles of Schaunard and Colline, Chunfeng Li and José Rubio were sturdy and consistent, amplifying a vocally competent ensemble. The result was a bohème that moved briskly under the direction of Willie Anthony Waters—lustrous and fresh, despite its longstanding presence within the repertory.
It was this freshness that was the most revealing; and, I believe it was due to the production’s overall reliance on the singers’ art. Last night’s performance of La bohème made a strong case for opera as primarily a singing practice. The complexity, the glamour, the drama were present within the music—there was no need to decontextualize the plot, spice up the eroticism, or straightjacket the narrative with an ideological agenda. All that was needed were well-prepared, committed singers, and a musical text that remains evergreen in its genius.