Over the moon for “Rent”? You can see where it all began when the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre makes its Paramount Theatre debut with “La Boheme” on Jan. 18 and 20.
Puccini’s best-loved opera opened in 1896 — exactly 100 years before “Rent” took Broadway by storm. One features a dying seamstress named Mimi, a poet, a painter, a singer, a musician, a philosopher, a state councilor and a landlord in the 1830s. The other features a dying dancer named Mimi, a songwriter, a filmmaker, a performance artist, a drag queen, a philosophy professor, a lawyer and a landlord in the 1980s.
The late Jonathan Larson based his modern tale of love, loss and angst on Puccini’s opera, moving the action from Paris to New York’s East Village. Both are rife with starving artists living and loving amidst poverty and illness. One scourge is AIDS, the other is tuberculosis.
Both focus on a year in the life — on seasons of undulating love under dire circumstances. And that’s why today’s audiences wrap “La Boheme” in such an enduring embrace.
“The secret is in number 1, the music, and number 2, the drama in the story,” says artistic director Stanley M. Garner of Tulsa, Okla., who is making his first trip to Iowa to work with the opera company.
But romance can’t always triumph over harsh realities, he adds. Both shows take place in and around freezing cold apartments where the most fragile characters simply can’t survive, no matter how many pieces of paper they burn for warmth. The end result is heartbreak — a death of body and a near-death of spirit in both.
“This is nothing new,” Garner says, “and it’s still around with us today. I was watching the local news last night, in Cedar Rapids, and they were doing a story about shelters and the homeless, because it was so very cold.”
That provides the bridge for opera fans and “Rent” fans.
“This couldn’t be a better first opera experience or 50th opera experience,” says Daniel Kleinknecht of Coralville, the opera theater’s founder and musical director for “La Boheme.”
- Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presents “La Boheme”
- 8 p.m. Jan. 18 and 2 p.m. Jan. 20
- Paramount Theatre
- Tickets: $18 to $53 at the Orchestra Iowa Box Office, (319) 366-8203, 1-(800) 369- 8863 or Paramounttheatrecr.com
- Information: cr-opera.org
- Extras: Free pre-opera Curtain Talks in Opus Cafe one hour before showtimes; Iowa Public Radio will broadcast the Jan. 20 production live
“Puccini knew how to assemble an evening’s entertainment,” he says. “The first act is rambunctious … then it becomes a little more quiet. The second act is so full of spirit and life with all of these wonderful activities. It’s Christmas Eve in Paris and ends with emotional high.
“The third act becomes so introverted and so contrasting to the second act — it’s wonderfully expressive and warm and full of pathos. It’s a discovery of unrequited love and real pain. Then Puccini continues to take us over this emotional cliff with (Mimi’s) really incapacitated health and her death,” says Kleinknecht, who also serves as an associate professor of music at Mount Mercy University.
“In essence, Puccini takes us on an emotional ride. He gives us incredible highs and incredible lows. These are all such human, human emotions and they’re set to the most gorgeous tunes. So we as human beings respond to that,” he says. “It’s a natural human response to love this piece, because Puccini was so human.”
Garner, a classical actor who has been directing operas since 1991, has spoken to young “Rent” fans after they experienced “La Boheme” for the first time. They love it, he says.
“It’s like almost a maturation. Now ‘Boheme’ becomes their favorite,” he says. “They are fascinated by the fact that … it’s acoustic. That there are no microphones, there’s no sound enhancement, there’s no electronic amplification of sound. … It’s pretty exciting and electrifying … if it’s the first time you’ve ever heard something like that.”
Kleinknecht can’t wait for it all to come together. The production, part of the opera theater’s 15th season, presents a number of firsts: first time in the Paramount; largest cast, numbering around 100; largest orchestra, filling the renovated pit with 50 Orchestra Iowa players; largest set, featuring a huge central piece that rotates from the attic apartment to the boisterous Latin Quarter cafe and other environs; and the opera theater’s largest potential audience, with two performances in the 1,700-seat auditorium.
He’s hoping to “open a new door” for people new to opera.
He’s already opening a new door for massive community involvement, using 30 children from Orchestra Iowa’s Discovery Chorus and the Crescendo Children’s Choir from Iowa City; 17 from the opera’s Young Artists program; an adult chorus of 30; and 12 players from the Jefferson High School band onstage — in addition to the principal core of six professional opera performers Kleinknecht auditioned in New York last June.
“We decided … let’s throw everything in but the kitchen sink,” Kleinknecht says.
All will find big challenges in Puccini’s score, which is sung in Italian.
“Every measure is in a different tempo,” he says. “People have to keep real close attention to not just the notes and the key signatures, but to the way it’s shaped and the way it’s sung.”
They also need to be on their toes, since Kleinknecht and the orchestra will be down in the pit, while the singers will be on two levels on the set.
“We’ll have like three stories’ difference between the orchestra and the singers. This will be really fun,” he says.
Despite the sadness of her role, soprano Erica Strauss of New York City is having fun with her first opportunity to portray Mimi. She’s loved the show for a long time, and says the aria “Mi Chiamano Mimì” is the second one she learned as a beginning voice student.
“It’s exciting to be able to finally get a chance to do it,” she says. “Besides the amazing music,” she’s drawn to Mimi’s “sweetness, her vulnerability. She has a very, very deep soul. I love that about her. I find her to be a very genuine person with a really, really good heart.”
It’s not easy playing someone who is ill, especially someone who is coughing, which is hard on the vocal chords, so Strauss protects herself by doing more of a pantomime cough.
Her main challenge, however, deals with the show’s emotional impact.
“It’s just so sad and the music hits you so close to your heart,” she says, so her hard task is “to separate you as a person from you as a character and not get overwhelmed by just how sad it is. …
“Honestly, it’s a pleasure to play her.”