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La Bohème is an opera for the people - and for our Covid times

After its Covid-enforced hiatus, NI Opera returns on Saturday with an imaginative production of La Bohème staged in evocative surroundings. Jane Hardy finds out what audiences can expert

Artistic director Cameron Menzies says La Boheme 'had to be' NI Opera's first production of the Covid-era
Jane Hardy

WHEN Northern Ireland Opera's new artistic director Cameron Menzies, an Australian wunderkind, put on his thinking cap to select an opera to produce in the plague era, there could only be one choice.

"It absolutely had to be La Bohème," he says now, embarking on the final rehearsals for his first show for the company.

Giacomo Puccini's opera was first performed in Paris in 1896 but is clearly a good fit for our times.

It involves seamstress Mimi's infection with TB and beautiful death, contains some of the most moving arias about loss (including Rodolfo's famous Che gelida manina, or Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, in F major marked agitato) and resonates in a particularly apt way today.

"It's about people finding themselves, and finding their way," explains Menzies.

Cleverly, Menzies - who says he is aged "somewhere between 25 and 65" - has pushed the production design towards the First World War era and says the costumes are even more ragged than usual.

"They're wonderful and that bit more tattered than we're used to," he says, approvingly.

The setting for this production is the magnificent yet slightly crumbling Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, one of Belfast's most familiar and striking buildings. It stands sentry at Carlisle Circus in the north of the city, beside the Orange Hall on Clifton Street.

It is perhaps an unusual setting, yet it is also perfect in many ways. The structure spells faded glory and acoustically it is great, as Menzies notes.

"It's got two main roads outside but you wouldn't know it," he says.

"We're chatting here now and the acoustic is brilliant, there's no booming. Also, this building has been through a lot itself; it has fallen on hard times, and that works too."

He adds: "I already feel that the power of the building and how it stands in its own slightly broken and faded beauty is the absolute perfect grasp to safely and lovingly hold this opera."

The opera shows us a shifting world, something we can all relate to in the Covid-19 era.

"The themes of youthful hope, the pursuit of connection, love and the very real and human desire for relationships, paired with some of the most stunning composition in the history of opera, seems to be what our audiences need right now both in terms of relevance and potency," says Menzies.

La Bohème features four struggling bohemian types (hence the title) who are (or aspire to be) a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher, who share digs in Paris.

One freezing Christmas Eve, a girl called Mimi knocks on the door looking for a candle - the period version of Gold Blend... - and she and Rodolfo fall dramatically in love.

We need to slightly fall for Puccini's modern characters too. Opera itself has changed and contemporary performers not only need stellar vocal ability, they also have to look convincing.

In Noah Stewart, the Harlem-born tenor, NI Opera has found a great and genuinely charismatic Rodolfo.

We discuss ethnicity and the fact productions in theatre and opera are now unaware of age and, rightly, colour blind. Menzies observes that it's all about getting the right vocal ability.

"We've got Noah because he's a superb singer, a class act," he says.

"I think it's absolutely nothing to do with a singer being black or white, it's to do with their talent.

"And as it happens, Paris in the era I have set La Bohème had a lot of prominent black American figures on the scene, such as Josephine Baker, so it's also realistic."

There is, of course, home-grown talent, too, with Belfast soprano Emma Morwood as Musetta, plus another new talent, soprano Gemma Summerfield, making her debut as Mimi.

And Menzies says he is excited to have secured the Ukrainian star Yuriy Yurchuk in the role of Marcello.

Opera can sometimes seem histrionic as a musical genre. Yet its over the top, often melismatic (many notes to one vowel, ie trilly) style is possibly right for our emotional response to life.

We need that extravagance, and this production will unquestionably be a multi-Kleenex affair for the audience - who will, as is the way of the arts in these Covid-19 times, be sat in a socially-distanced fashion.

Communications and development officer Julia O'Hara reveals people witnessing rehearsals have been tearful: "But happy tears, and we take that as a compliment."

La Bohème is Menzies's first production in front of live audiences since he joined NI Opera mid-pandemic in February.

He has an eclectic CV that encompasses opera, theatre, music theatre, cabaret and film-making, with productions ranging from traditional touring opera for Diva Opera to a work on the impact of HIV/Aids on Australian sufferers.

He has also directed an opera about netball but notes that La Bohème is one of his most rewarding to date.

Mr Menzies reveals that he would enjoy a mixed entertainment to cheer him after lockdown: "You'd want ballet, of course opera, maybe fashion and variety, a bit of everything."

But opera is Menzies' first love which he has enjoyed since his rugby star dad, Scott, who also loved classical music, took him to see the canon at Sydney Opera House.

"You would pass the magnificent Sydney Opera House going about the city but inside it was even better. I knew immediately opera was for me."

::La Bohème runs from September 18-25, www.niopera.com.

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