Paris was large enough in 1830 that it had a healthy population of weirdos—a class of people you find in any real city, who live together in strange and beautiful circumstances, are artists or writers or musicians or philosophers, and don't always pay the rent on time. In the production of La Bohème now playing at Seattle Opera, the characters live in a flat with odd angles and a huge, romantic view of Paris's ghettos.
Seattle has buildings like this, too, like the artist-populated Tashiro-Kaplan building between Pioneer Square and the train tracks. The person I took to La Bohème lives and makes art in the Tashiro-Kaplan building. When the curtain went up on the first act—with the painter Marcello at his easel and the poet Rodolfo staring out the window—my date whispered, "It's my building." The second act curtain went up on a crowded street scene, and my date whispered, "It's Pioneer Square."
This goes some way toward explaining why La Bohème has aged so well. So does its dark simplicity. In the first act, Marcello and two other live-in pals (a musician and a philosopher) leave Rodolfo alone to finish writing something, and while he's alone there's a knock on the door. At the door is Mimi, a poor seamstress who lives in the building and whose candle has gone out. She asks for a light, he insists she come in, he says something about her cold hands, she drops her key, he pockets her key so she won't leave, and in no time they're in love. Everyone who's read the program knows that two hours from now she'll be dead of consumption.
There's an almost identical scene in Rent, the rock musical based on La Bohème and set in the East Village that opened in New York exactly 100 years after La Bohème's 1896 opening. A poor S&M stripper named Mimi knocks on the struggling musician Roger's door because her candle's gone out, Roger comments on her cold hands, she drops a baggie of drugs, he pockets her drugs because he likes her, and in no time they're in love. The disease Mimi has is AIDS, not consumption, and Roger has it, too, and so do their friends Collins (anarchist NYU professor) and Angel (drag queen) and lots of minor characters. A touring production of Rent came through town last week, and the cast was super good—good enough that, when Angel dies in act two and walks offstage dragging a white train of fabric, and Collins sings a lament, a lament I could sing for you because I memorized the Rent libretto in high school, I started unexpectedly crying.
That was a surprise, because the older Rent gets—or at least the older I get—the worse it seems. You can't watch it without thinking Disney had a hand in it somewhere (most musicals have this problem). The writing is dodgy and the whole thing is dated—the pop references, the AZT the characters take to treat their AIDS, the way they think about their AIDS, the earnest singing about the importance of earnestness. It doesn't help that, after Mimi dies at the end, Roger sings her a song that's taken him a year to write and she springs back to life. I guess in 1996 this was the surprise ending, the antidote to all the AIDS-y angst, but these days it just seems like sweetness gone spoiled.
Then there's La Bohème, which hasn't spoiled and is hardly sweet at all. Compared to Rent, it's serious, sort of dry, and oddly sexier—after all, the characters in La Bohème aren't frantically trying to memorialize their own sexiness. For being bohemian chic, La Bohème is sparer than you might expect, especially if you go into it aware of Rent's big ensemble numbers, and its simplicity—the few characters, the somewhat austere set, the cold story—gives it the stature of a parable, something that seems to continue to apply. According to Wikipedia, which cites Opera America, La Bohème is the second most performed opera in North America. (And after Beauty and the Beast closes in July of this year, Rent will be the second-longest-running Broadway show still on Broadway, second only to Phantom of the Opera.)
What is it about La Bohème that's so durable? Why would you use this opera as the basis for a musical? If La Bohème is a parable, what is the lesson? That last question is what my date from the Tashiro-Kaplan building and I were trying to figure out. Then it occurred to her. She scrawled it on a piece of paper in the dark, during the last act: "Rich people like to watch poor people die."