Mimi Transformed: Adaptations of La Bohème
La Bohème is over a century old, but in many ways, it’s as fresh as the day it premiered at the Turin opera house on February 1, 1896. While the opera’s lush score is largely to thank for its persistent vitality, its varied adaptations over the years have also played a significant role in introducing Bohème to new audiences and presenting innovative takes on Giacomo Puccini’s magnum opus.
Below are some of our favorite interpretations of La Bohème, starting with one of the most blockbuster adaptations of an opera ever made.
Rent creator Jonathan Larson found something deeply familiar in Bohème. “In Puccini’s depiction of four wisecracking guys who share a ratty garret and spend one another’s money, when they have any, Mr. Larson recognized himself and his friends, fledgling artists who held down makeshift jobs to support their work amid an urban scene of drugs, poverty and AIDS,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times.
The idea of bringing Bohème into then-modern times took root after playwright Billy Aronson, Larson’s eventual collaborator on the show, attended a New York production of Puccini’s opera. “I remember walking home … and noticing the contrast between the world of the opera and the world I lived in,” Aronson said. “Manhattan, at the time, had not been Disnified and Giuliani’d.” That seed of an idea eventually turned into a ’90s rock ode to the artists and dreamers of Alphabet City—one of such significance to its many viewers that it became a massive musical-theater phenomenon.
Characters and plot were loosely brought over from Puccini’s original, with updates. Now Mimi suffered from AIDS, not tuberculosis, and the musician Schaunard was now a drag-queen drummer, also battling AIDS. Bohème Easter eggs include Roger’s struggle to compose something that doesn’t sound like “Musetta’s Waltz,” and Mimi’s declaration at the end of “Light My Candle” that “they call me Mimi”—harking back to the aria “Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi.”
Rent’s great tragedy is the death of Jonathan Larson on the morning of its first preview off-Broadway, of an aortic dissection at age 35. The tragedy takes on even greater resonance because of the date on which it occurred: January 25, 1996, just days before the centennial of Bohème’s debut.
Moulin Rouge! the Movie, La Bohème on Broadway, and Moulin Rouge! the Musical
We’re grouping these works by Baz Luhrmann, who has found inspiration in Puccini’s opera on numerous occasions—understandably, given his directing work for Opera Australia in Sydney, including a 1990 production of Bohème. In the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, Nicole Kidman assumed the dying-beauty role opposite Ewan McGregor’s tormented writer, Christian. Luhrmann has cited Bohème among his numerous influences for the film, whose mantra is the very bohemian “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.” Fans of hold-nothing-back spectacle were excited to learn of a musical version of Moulin Rouge! in the works, set to debut in Boston this summer before eventually transferring to Broadway.
Luhrmann revisited Bohème again in 2002, during a Broadway staging that updated his 1950s-set Australian production. The production engendered some critiques, from the way the stage featured ads for Montblanc pens as part of the scenery, to its fashion-ad artifice, to its use of body mics on the singers. But despite particular pain points, overall reviews suggested that even the New York critics were swept away. New York Times critic Ben Brantley, in naming the show one of his favorite theatrical productions of the year, asked “When was the last time a Broadway show had audiences crying this hard?”
Oops, we spent too much of our word count on Rent. Briefly, here are some other highlights in the Bohème-interpretation arena:
- “Don’t You Know” by Della Reese. “Don’t You Know?” (1959) was singer and Touched by an Angel actress Della Reese’s star-marking turn. The song was written by Bobby Worth but has a familiar melody: that of Bohème’s “Musetta’s Waltz.” It peaked at number one on the US R&B chart.
- The 2015 South African film Breathe Umphefumlo moves the setting of Bohème to Cape Town, swapping out traditional orchestration for marimbas, kettle drums, and other local instruments and replacing Puccini’s Italian with Xhosa. Director Mark Dornford-May described to Variety that he found parallels between the bohemians’ Paris and modern Cape Town; tuberculosis remains a fatal scourge in South Africa.
- Two earlier film versions were released in the 1920s and ’30s. A silent La Bohème (1926) was a star vehicle for silent-film megastar Lillian Gish. Gish’s contract with the film studio MGM gave her significant creative control. In addition to having input on everything from the screenplay to costumes, Gish supposedly went somewhat method, hardly eating or drinking for three days to prepare for Mimi’s final scene.
- Nine years later, the British film Mimi starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (son of the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks) and renowned stage actress Gertrude Lawrence. Online reviews range from “pokey” to “mildly good.”
- Composer and pianist Dave Burrell’s album La Vie de Bohème (1969) is an improvisational, loose, freewheeling jazz adaptation of Bohème. It was recorded, appropriately, in Paris, home of Puccini’s bohemians.
Written by Grace Parazzoli
Experience OPERA San Antonio’s La Bohème at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in the H-E-B Performance Hall on May 17th and 19th. To purchase tickets, CLICK HERE or call the Box Office at (210) 223-8624.