La Bohème: The Opera about “Nothing”

A friend complained that she profoundly disliked the opera La Bohème. Her criticism of Puccini’s hugely popular masterpiece is that the opera drags on, that it takes too long for Mimi to die, and that all of the operas she dislikes happen to be written by Puccini. These might sound like invalid criticisms, comments made by hurried, uncultured Americans who always want to “get somewhere” or something to happen. Lest one assume she is a complete cultural ignoramus, my friend is actually very knowledgeable about opera and the fine arts, and holds memberships to New York art museums though she lives in the Midwest. I was offended in jest, as I am currently learning the role of Musetta, which is as delightful as it is challenging, and will later learn the role of Mimi.

One could argue that we all have an artist we dislike in a particular genre. I doubt I will ever sit through an entire opera by Wagner, despite being an opera singer. But Wagner’s music is absolutely stunning in small doses. I find the overtures to Rienzi and Tannhäuser (one of my marooned-on-a-desert-island picks) and the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (tear-inducing when heard live by the Mariinsky Orchestra) to be heartbreakingly gorgeous. I have also joked that I refuse to see Puccini’s Turandot on moral grounds, that the opera is a sort of play-the-black-keys-on-the piano-and-it’s “Chinese” kind of Orientalism at its worst. But I do think it worthwhile to examine La Bohème in detail, to see if there is validity in my friend’s criticism of the opera.

La Bohème, essentially, is “an opera about nothing,” to borrow the analogy from the description of the hugely popular television show “Seinfeld.” The show focused on minutiae, where each episode was not about something grand or dramatic, but something small and silly, where the pleasure in watching came simply from being in the moment and enjoying the pleasure of watching, from funny lines or absurd situations or characters’ quirks. There is something to be said about this characteristic in all genres of artwork, where the realization of the work of art and its details, the way it reproduces reality or conjures the particular emotional feeling of the moment, is what makes it noteworthy. Impressionist paintings, for example, evoke a mood, as do 19th-century symphonic tone poems or a film like the stunning “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel Über Berlin”) by Wim Wenders, which is poetry on screen.

The main plotline to La Bohème is relatively simple—-a young dying woman, Mimì, falls in love with poor poet Rodolfo, who lives with his painter friend Marcello, and they are friends with other starving artists. Their relationship goes through ups and downs, as does the painter’s relationship with the coquettish Musetta. In the end, Mimì dies. All relatively straightforward, and not so much to stretch out into 4 acts. On this point, I would agree: La Bohème is too long; Act III could be condensed into Act IV. The opera could work in two acts, actually. The first could accelerate the meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo, then involve a set change into the café. At this peak of happiness, we could then see it all go downhill: Mimì seeks Marcello out to tell him of her unhappiness with Rodolfo, and then, after a set change, she dies. But even in condensing the opera into two acts, we are still ignoring a structural problem: too much of the action of here happens offstage. In this, the criticism that nothing happens in La Bohème may be well justified.

In Act I, the plot is set into action. We see Rodolfo writing and Marcello painting. We see their struggles as artists, we feel their suffering due to the lack of heat and food. And then most importantly, we see Mimì introduced onto the scene. We see her faint, we get to know her sickness. And then we see her falling in love with Rodolfo, and vice versa. In other words, Act I is active, because we are engaged with the events shown onstage.

Act II is less active, but we can forgive it because of one key reason—Musetta. She is one of opera’s greatest female characters, a free-spirited, vain, flirtatious, independent woman who will do as she pleases. She is one of the rare characters who does not suffer a tragic end, nor is she punished for enjoying her sexuality. Though we do not get much of the backstory of Marcello and Musetta’s, we get enough: theirs is an eternally on-off relationship that is generally taken lightly, in contrast to the deep, intimate, emotionally tortured relationship of Rodolfo and Mimì. We enjoy Musetta’s attention-seeking antics she uses to seduce Marcello, and her showcase aria, “Quando m’en vo” is arguably one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera. Act II is all about pleasure, pleasure in romance, pleasure in eating, pleasure in being surrounded by townsfolk. Though not super active, there is still visible action that drives the plot forward. Musetta is reunited with Marcello, and Rodolfo and Mimì are deeply in love forever.

Act III is where the opera becomes more passive. This fact is probably the most passive of all the 4 acts. Mimì has gone to seek Rodolfo at a tavern during winter. She reveals to Marcello what she has suffered from Rodolfo’s jealousy. Then, Rodolfo tells Marcello that he can’t bear it that Mimì is dying. The couple meets, and agrees to stay together until spring. While this is all fine and well, it is only because the music is so beautiful that the audience remains engaged. So much of the action has happened offstage–we have not gotten to see the downfall of their relationship, the arguments, the jealousies, Mimì’s slow decline. The contrast of a fight between Marcello and Musetta serves for comic relief: if Act II was a love moment, Act III is a hate moment in the roller coaster of their relationship. These two characters are not critical to the plot in the way Rodolfo and Mimì are. Time is stretched out in this act; it moves even more slowly than real-time.

Act IV is also rather passive until Mimì arrives on the scene. We have found out that she took up with a viscount after leaving Rodolfo, but has dragged herself, with the help of Musetta, to Rodolfo’s apartment to die. Again, too much has happened offstage that we want to know about–how did they survive the parting? What was Mimi’s relationship with this viscount? Did Rodolfo see any other women in the meantime? How has Mimì’s arrived at death’s door? Has she tried to save her life? Meanwhile, Musetta’s character arc shows her as less selfish than she was before. She has gone with Marcello to sell her earrings to buy Mimi a muff, and makes a sincere prayer to the Virgin Mary to save Mimi, an angel, considering herself unworthy of pardon. Her death scene is indeed touching, the group of friends surrounding her with their warmth and love. But again, one could argue that this act is stretched out longer than necessary, without much going on.

In sum, then, the problem with La Bohème is pacing and the portrayal of time. One must remember that the opera is based on a book, Scènes de la vie de bohème (scenes from a bohemian life), and therein lies the problem: the libretto is based on scenes. Any time a group of stories is woven together into a film or a longer work, such as an opera (and opera might be considered the equivalent of a novel), there is the danger of the longer work being fragmented. Longer works need structure and plot development. These two literary devices are the backbone or skeleton for a film or opera. Two people, Giacosa and Illica, also wrote the libretto and this may also be another source of the problem. Many films that seem unclear, messy, or fragmented have multiple writers, and it is rare when they can find unity in their vision.

This said, I still find La Bohème to be one of the most beautiful and engaging operas ever written. Puccini’s music carries the story even when it is weak, the language of the libretto is simply gorgeous and poetic, and the characters are as relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. They are rounded and complex, real and flawed. Proof of La Bohème’s popularity and relevance can be seen in Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical, Rent. I personally happen to find the musical a somewhat vulgar copy of the opera, though I am always a fan of any modern work that draws on classics, such as the brilliant films that comprised 2005’s “ShakespeaRe-told”. There is no question that La Bohème will continue to be a classic for decades if not centuries to come.

What Makes for “Good” Opera?

Today I will address something more specific than what the title indicates: that is, what makes a piece of operatic music well written and easy to sing? For the layperson—-even for me, pre-opera studies—-opera seems to be a magical art form in which the music flows and the words convey. That is true, when opera is at its best! But there are certainly plenty of works that are not well written and a nightmare to sing. For now, let’s take a closer look: consider this the Layperson’s Guide to Opera.

Asking which is more important, the words or the music, is rather like asking which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Richard Strauss addresses this dilemma quite cleverly in his symbolic opera Capriccio, in which the heroine Madeleine is torn between her two lovers, a composer and a poet. Very often, a libretto was written on commission or by a particular writer, often based on a famous work of literature, and the composer set the music to it. In the case of liturgical music, such as Mozart’s Requiem (a work so beautiful it’s enough to make anyone want to convert to Catholicism upon death), the text has already existed in Latin and each composer takes his or her stab at it. From the singer’s point of view, it’s a sort of buy one, get a dozen free situation, for you learn just one text and then learn the music particular to each piece! But in all seriousness, liturgical music has shaped the foundations of Western classical music, though it no longer remains at the forefront of how we perceive music in the West. There were indeed composers who wrote the music first and had a librettist add words to the melodies. And finally, there were the rare few who wrote both the words and the libretto, such as Richard Wagner or Hector Berlioz, a feat of considerable genius.

But let us look a little more deeply at the words and music. Very often, the words are written in rhyme or a particular rhythmic scheme. Rhyme dates back from our earliest cultures as a way of helping people remember long passages of words, our inheritance from our oral traditions. Advanced Italian classes teach the students how to examine the rhyme and count syllables and word stresses in a verse or poem—-in other words, in an aria. The prosody or rhythm of the words varies from language to language. For example, French tends to lean heavily on the 2nd or last syllable, whereas English leans heavily on the 1st syllable. Italian’s double consonants and musical inflections make for sonorous waves and pauses in the language. The precision of the German language is shown through its word stresses and nuanced vowels. A good composer will respect these unique features of the languages. Are the long notes appropriately placed on the longer syllables? Is a high pitch to be sung on an easier or open vowel such as “ah” rather than an umlauted o?

As for the music, there is more variance here, for different voices are able to handle different vocal demands. For example, my voice is a lyric soprano, and I am best able to handle long, smooth vocal lines that move up one step at a time, rather than by leaps. However, there are other voices that can handle leaps and staccato, even shrieks, for whom the long smooth vocal lines would be torture. But I would argue that the best-loved arias are the ones that tend to be written with smoother lines and with memorable melodies—-something “hummable” that has a simple melody, often repeats itself, and perhaps features a few embellishments here or there or a cadenza (a solo, unaccompanied moment, sort of like what one hears in a jazz combo when each musician takes his/her turn to show off). Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” for soprano would be one good example of this, or “Nessun dorma” (made famous by Pavarotti during his tenure with The 3 Tenors). A good composer builds momentum and a climax into the piece, engaging the listener and making him or her want to keep listening to hear what’s coming. Beautiful melodies are often found in opera choruses as well: those who know the unofficial Italian anthem of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” might very well tell you it is one of the most gorgeous melodies ever written. A beautiful operatic melody will permeate your heart and soul, until it must come out of your mouth at random moments, such as while washing dishes or driving in the car.

But even when the words and music match beautifully, when the melody respects the natural inflections and rhythms of the words, there is yet another layer of nuance that only the best vocal composers can create. It is a layer of subtlety in which each character’s part is completely unique and suited to that character alone. We might think of the dark vocal lines and erupting passions of Carmen, contrasted with the pure, long lines of Micaela, her counterpart. There is the chatty nature of Leporello contrasted with Don Giovanni’s bombastic boasts; and within Don Giovanni himself, one hears a wide range of emotions: the caressing seduction of “Deh vieni alla finestra” to his dismissive recitatives to Donna Elvira to his unwieldy defiance of the Commendatore up till his last earthly moments. There is Musetta’s coquettish waltz, with its pauses and giggles as she revels in her good looks and ability to charm men. The best composers, like Mozart, have this skill and genius for reflecting a character’s moods through his or her vocal lines.

This is nothing new and it still continues today in the best modern operas as well as in popular music. Why did millions of fans want to hear Robert Plant in his Zeppelin days? He brought a moaning, aching sound to blues-inspired hard rock songs that made you feel what he was feeling. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, infused his hits with a sense of energy that pulsated from his dance steps and erupted into his voice. Even today, singer-songwriter Bjork brings primal howls to her songs that are very often related to nature or romantic passion.

So it is not just a brilliant composer who integrates words and music, but also a talented performer who can interpret those compositions and bring them to life for the listener.