La Boheme – An unnatural taste worth acquiring

Extra La Boheme PFPWhat do I know about opera? Well pretty much nothing. I saw Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall years ago and wasn’t sure at all what I thought of it.

And that was my only experience…. until seeing the sort of mini opera La Boheme by the Opera Up Close company at the small Charing Cross theatre this week, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Opera, I think, is like olives. It is a very unusual taste which needs to be acquired before it can really be enjoyed (I put seafood and modern art in the same categories).

And as it turns out, this version of La Boheme, makes a pretty good place to start one’s initiation. It almost feels like opera for beginners.

For starters it costs considerably less than the full-blown productions at the Royal Opera House. It is also short (2 hours, with two intervals).

But the main attraction for the beginner is that lyrics are sung in English. This makes it completely understandable and relatively easy to follow.

The story (which though set in modern times seems to closely follow Puccini’s original) is a straightforward tragic love story. It begins with four artist friends in the hip East London area of Dalston, fooling about in their flat on Christmas Eve before heading down the pub. One, a struggling writer, meets and falls in love with his frail neighbour.

Unused to operatic singing, I was somewhat bemused by the opening, where the characters sing about David Cameron, their laptops and multi-tasking! But soon the incongruity of the style and the subject became amusing and almost seemed like an affectionate satire on opera’s over the topness.

This light and amusing first act is followed by an interval during which the audience are encouraged by actors dotted about the theatre to get up and wander around and head to the bar at the back.

The action starts up again in a wonderful second act with the audience now spread all over the place – sitting or standing in the aisles – as the opera takes place across the whole theatre in a raucous Christmas eve pub scene. At one point one of the main characters was stood right next to me singing her lungs out to the other characters on the other side of the room. Quite an experience.

The third act takes place several months later with the relationship of the two central lovers now fraught and heading towards tragedy. Enhanced by the intimacy of the theatre, the final act is extremely moving and beautiful.

Although not an opera aficionado I do like musicals. And I have wanted to see La Boheme since seeing and loving the musical Rent years ago (as well as its hysterical parody in Team America).

Rent of course is based on La Boheme and the story, and even particular scenes, are remarkably similar as well as the main musical theme which runs throughout both the musical and the opera.

I hear a lot of people complain that they don’t like musicals because they are sentimental and melodramatic with overly mannered or fake performances and singing.

I don’t necessary disagree with this, but I quite like it none the less. But so far, opera seems to me equally sentimental and melodramatic.

A big difference is clearly the music, with musicals using popular music with melodies and rhyme which are totally familiar and therefore accessible.

Opera on the other hand, like classical music generally, has very complex musical arrangements with few hooks or motifs to latch onto.

But if people think singing in musicals is over the top, well, operatic singing seems to me a completely bizarre and ridiculously mannered style. It is positively unnatural! Although during La Boheme I did get used to it.

Regarding the music, I found La Boheme a little un-engaging. Maybe, as this feels like a mini opera with the musical accompaniment being provided by a sole pianist (who plays impressively non-stop throughout), this version is not representative. And my non-appreciation of the music may be more about my own unfamiliarity with the style more than anything else.

None the less this was completely engaging theatre. Extremely entertaining, clever and ultimately very moving. I am still not sure exactly what I think about opera, but after seeing this show, I am sure that it is a taste that, like olives and seafood, will be well worth acquiring.

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