I grew up hating opera. My parents would blast it on Saturday mornings, and when friends came over to play, they suggested we play outside. Watching it on TV was worse: Sopranos sounded tinny though the tiny speakers, and the stage work looked motionless on the small screen. It wasn't until I saw live opera in my 20s—where the world's chief singing talents are stretching the limits of the human voice and moving across vast stages—that I got it. Opera is high-stakes and intense.
If you're opera-curious but worried that you'll be bored, confused about what to see, and concerned that it will all be nonsensical caterwauling you can't understand because you don't speak Italian, don't worry. This is the opera for you.
Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, which was the basis for the musical Rent, is a staple of opera houses everywhere thanks to its tried-and-true story about the most tried-and-true subjects: love and death. And Seattle Opera has pulled out every stop with a production that is not just expertly sung, but also deftly acted and decked with glorious staging. It's a wonder for the first-timer as well as people who have seen it a half-dozen times (including my mom, who cried at all the right moments).
The curtain rises on the first act to reveal two Parisian bohemians, cold as penguins in their attic flat, considering tossing a chair into their little stove for heat. They think better of that and choose to burn the poet's manuscript instead. It's a funny moment, and you can follow along because Seattle Opera's Jonathan Dean writes succinct, pithy English subtitles that are projected on a huge screen.
In one classic translation of La Bohème, for example, a character refers to a song that "sickens" him and makes him "bilious." Dean translates that line more directly as "that song of his will make me puke." Which is perfect: In the so-called verismo operas of the late 1800s, the situations are more realistic (people get diseases) and the characters more common (they are bohemians). They don't feel bilious—they feel like puking.
The female lead, Mimi, has tuberculosis. Nineteenth-century France is a bummer like that. So it's gotta be so hard for her to sing, right? Not at all! Elizabeth Caballero has literally one of the finest voices I've ever heard, crushing the men onstage with a booming, elastic vibrato that dominates McCaw Hall. Imagine the world's creamiest, richest vanilla custard—now imagine that as a serenade. The only drag about La Bohème is that Caballero is not singing constantly throughout the show (and she takes some nights off, so check the schedule). Her male counterpart, Rodolfo (played by tenor Francesco Demuro), was comparatively lackluster on opening night, sounding thin in the upper registers and meek beside Caballero.
But on the whole, this production is rock-solid and pretty enough to entertain a deaf man. The second act takes place in a bustling cafe and street scene with scampering children, a stilt walker, balloons, lights and lanterns, waiters, real food, and all the hustle of a Disney cartoon feast. In the third act, it's snowing. Stage snow may not be entirely uncommon, but it pours through the entire act, piling onto berms of more snow, collecting on trash cans and trees and streets and streetlamps and our lovers.
The gorgeous design is a ton of gravy on a classic that, without overshadowing wonderful storytelling, makes opera totally accessible to everyday slouches like me who don't even want to listen to it on the radio.