When Dan Wayne agreed to be the stage director for “La Bohème” for Juneau Lyric Opera, it wasn’t without some trepidation. Though armed with a deep passion for the opera (his favorite) and an intimate knowledge of the score (he played the lead role in JLO’s 2000 production opposite his wife, Kathleen), Wayne had never directed anything for the stage.
“At first I was thinking, ‘Well, we did this before I think I remember a lot of how this works,’ and then Alan Davis, the producer, who was also involved in the last production said, ‘Well the last production was really good, but I don’t want to just do a repeat, I want to do something new and fresh.’ Then he said. ‘So what’s your plan?’” Wayne laughed in recalling his hesitation. “I said ‘Well, I’ll have to work on that.’”
A fresh approach to one of the most popular and produced operas of all time is no easy task, but Wayne, buoyed by the enthusiasm of his wife and friends, moved forward. On all sides he had the support of people he respected — not least of which was music director for the project, William Todd Hunt. Hunt is also artistic director of Opera To Go, resident conductor of the Juneau Symphony and chorus master of the Juneau Symphony Chorus. Like Wayne, he brought his love of Puccini’s opera to the project as well as substantial previous experience — the 2011 production was his fourth.
With Hunt, Wayne arrived at an approach to the work that excited him.
“What I did in consultation with Todd — it was really his idea — was to just try to boil it down to the essence of the story and characters, and music, and, as he puts it, to strip away this shell of artifice that’s kind of taken shape around the work over the last however many years,” Wayne said.
Their approach was well suited to their youngish cast and was for them both a way to honor the work as it was written.
“I thought, well we’ve got this really young cast,” Hunt said, “Not everybody is young but the average age is way younger than your typical cast — and also young voices that haven’t had a lot of exposure (to that opera) so right there we’ve got an opportunity to strip away all the stuff and say, ‘what did Puccini write? Whoa, he knew what he was doing!’” He laughed.
This production marks the first principal role for Anne Weske (Mimi), the first lead role in a JLO production for Derrick Grimes (Rodolfo) and the first-ever opera performance for Odin Brudie (Benoit, Alcindoro) and Ryan Curley (Colline). The youngest cast member is Emily Smith (Musetta), who graduated from Juneau Douglas High School in 2010. Other, more experienced members of the cast, making repeat appearances from the 2000 production in different roles, are Brett Crawford (Marcello) and Wade Rogers (Schaunard).
With this cast on board, both Wayne and Hunt worked to bring a fresh approach to music and action of the production; both stressed that there was quite a bit of overlap between them. Wayne said he was thrilled to work with Hunt to make the music come alive.
“The guy is just amazing. He knows every line of the dialog, he knows every note, he can sing all the parts and conduct them at the same time, he knows what all the words mean, and on top of that he’s a professional lighting designer — he’s doing all our lights for us,” Wayne said.
Wayne worked to make sure that this grasp of the dialog was shared by every cast member, a goal that furthered the larger mission of getting down to the bones of the script. He tossed out the English translation of the Italian that was provided with the scripts they had purchased and rebuilt a complete English translation based on the literal meaning of Puccini’s Italian. Wayne said in some cases the difference in meaning was minimal, but even then helped the vocalists determine where to place their emphasis in delivering their lines. (English supertitles placed projected unobtrusively at the back of the stage allow the audience to follow along as well.)
This process of starting from scratch was mirrored in the music; Hunt took out any conventions that had been added by directors over time, such as places where notes were held longer than Puccini indicated.
He also had to make a couple changes in the other direction due to restrictions posed by the small space of McPhetres Hall; there is no chorus in this production, though one is called for, and the orchestra is very small. Hunt himself plays the clarinet and bassoon (an unusual thing for him to do while directing, he said), joined by Sandy Fortier, the new executive director of Opera to Go! and Sue Kazama on piano. Kazama also worked extensively with the cast as a music coach.
Overall, however, the small space at McPhetres worked to their advantage, Hunt said, reinforcing the intimacy of the dramatic action. (And they’ve got a great lighting system, he added).
“With ‘Bohème,’ in particular, the way Puccini wrote it, everything except for the second act is very intimate,” Hunt said.
The action of the opera is quite compressed, coming in at under two hours. The story, set in Paris around 1830, involves the friendship of four artists who are barely getting by. In Act I Rodolfo falls head over heels for Mimi, a woman who is deathly ill. In Act II, Rodolfo’s friend Marcello is reunited with an old love, Musetta. In Act III, all four lovers quarrel and split, and in Act IV, all come back together, though the reunion for Mimi and Rodolfo is short lived.
Highlights from this production, in this non-expert viewer’s opinion, include the last part of Act I, when Rodolfo and Mimi take turns sharing information about themselves. Weske and Grimes do more than deliver beautiful music, they manage the difficult task of establishing a believable bond of gentle sweetness between Rodolfo and Mimi — all in the course of about three minutes. (Rodolfo: “I live in my contented poverty, as if a grand lord, I squander odes and hymns of love. In my dreams and reveries, I build castles in the air, where in spirit I am a millionaire.” Mimi: “I live by myself, all alone in my little white room. I look upon the roofs and the sky. But when the thaw comes, the first warmth of the sun is mine, the first kiss of April is mine!”)
Another highlight for this viewer was Smith’s fiery onstage presence and soaring vocals as Musetta, particularly in Act II as she tries to get Marcello (the very talented Crawford) to notice her.
The story itself worked in conjunction with the directors’ emphasis on a simple and direct interpretation of Puccini’s lines. One of the appeals of “La Bohème” for Wayne and others is that is centers on real people — broke artists living in Paris. Their exchanges, expressive of their bonds and difficulties, are for the most part written in very simple language, without any of the artifice one might expect to find in opera. The lack of artifice is what drew Wayne to it in the first place, when he saw it with his wife in London.
“I remember thinking that it was more realistic than what I thought opera could be,” he said. “I like to feel real emotions when I go to a play or a concert or anything else. This material works for me in doing that.”
Both Wayne and Hunt said they were happy with the way the production turned out — and judging from the six (maybe seven after last night) sold out performances, Juneau audiences agreed with them.
“In the end what we wanted to do was to have the most natural sounding and natural looking true depiction of the story and the music that we could have,” Wayne said. “And not try to copy anything, to do our own. And I think we did that.”