Mimì enjoys smelling flowers and staring at the sun. She’s a lover, and she’s playful. She’s shy and embarrassed.
She’s also dying.
At 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, Voice Program Chair Marlena Malas, Music School Festival Orchestra Music Director Timothy Muffitt and Stage Director John Giampietro will blend their disciplines and their expertise to present Chautauquans with one of the world’s most popular operas: La bohème.
Kathryn Henry, a soprano in the choir ensemble, said relating to Mimì, the opera’s seamstress-heroine, wasn’t an unattainable task. It was just hard to ignore the endgame.
“The hardest part is remembering that I wasn’t willing to die yet, character-wise,” said Henry, Mimì’s understudy. “In Act III, it all falls apart. It’s intense — you see Mimì freaking out because she understands it all of a sudden. She knows she’s dying.”
Malas and Giampietro agree Giacomo Puccini’s work reflects never-ending existential dilemmas of young artists. The struggles faced by the Bohemian artists Rodolfo, Marcello, Musetta, Schaunard and Colline can be easily translated into those of today’s creative virtuosos, Giampietro said. Their lives as unworldly creators are punctuated with poverty and hunger, but they fail to fall short when it comes to ambition.
While Mimì’s death is considered the main tragedy of the opera, Giampietro said the true calamity resides in the loss of blissful youth in the wake of death.
“In this case, death enters into their ‘happy poverty,’ as they call it, and their lives will never be the same,” he said. “That’s the real tragedy — when youth ends.”
As with Ariodante earlier in the summer, Giampietro has made it his mission to translate this centuries-old masterpiece into something today’s society can grasp. La bohème, originally set in Paris, has been put in Brooklyn for the School of Music’s production.
Although the opera is still being performed in Italian — with English subtitles to be projected in the Amp as an aid to the audience — the text is timeless, Giampietro said. His deeper goal is putting a contemporary façade over the perennial libretto.
“I always have to approach every production that I do — whether its theater or an opera, Ariodante or La bohème — it’s, ‘What do we have to say about the piece?’ ” Giampietro said. “I’m not interested at all about how things were done in the past — it’s what we do to bring it to the here and now.”
Malas describes her cast as “the United Nations.” She cites singers who are Chinese, Australian, French-Canadian and Turkish.
“There’s a special chemistry with them, and you get it,” Malas said. “You hear two minutes of it, and you’re enthralled. It’s intimate, and it’s fantastic.”
Despite an impeccable cast, Malas said the opera itself is what she recommends to anyone who asks for her suggestion. More contemporary works, such as Rent, are also based off La bohème, she said.
The amalgamation of the Voice Program and the MSFO has been a highlight of the School of Music’s seven-week duration for several years now, Muffitt said. A conversation between Malas and himself years ago led to an agreement that inter-program collaboration would benefit all the students involved.
“That’s the real value of the experience — playing an opera is a completely different way of playing music,” Muffitt said. “Working with singers and working in a theatrical setting is very different. It takes a different kind of awareness.”
Developing an inter-arts collaboration at this scale is not an easy feat, Henry said. Students’ performances are often solo recitals or kept within their respective programs, but fusing forces of galvanized individuals is going to result in a cogent production, she said.
“I think everyone here is at such a level of excellence,” Henry said. “It’s easy when you enjoy something this much — you just open up, and you let go.”
The main cast of eight Voice Program students stars Elena Perroni as Mimì, Evan Johnson (Acts I and III) and Jean-Michel Richer (Acts II and IV) as Rodolfo, Nicolette Mavroleon as Musetta, Kidon Choi (Acts I and IV) and Dogukan Kuran (Acts II and III) as Marcello, Xiaomeng Zhang as Schaunard, Vartan Gabrielian as Colline and Alex Frankel as Parpignol. Kathryn Henry (Mimì), Christine Oh (Musetta), Philip Stoddard (Schaunard) and Tyler Zimmerman (Colline) have studied to perform as covers, if necessary.