"La Boheme" is contagious.
Last winter, Dan Wayne developed an obsession with the famous Italian opera. An accomplished singer and veteran of numerous operas and musicals, Wayne had a vision he wanted to produce "La Boheme" in Juneau. He rallied key people - a music director and a stage director, a pianist and singers.
The Juneau Lyric Opera was initially hesitant to get behind the show, but Wayne's enthusiasm proved infectious. Before long he had a theater and a technical crew ready to stage Puccini's opera.
"This is really his baby," said music director William Todd Hunt. "He totally put this together. He assembled the cast and creative staff and has carried it through all the way while singing Rodolfo, one of the most demanding characters in opera. His character is offstage only about six minutes in the entire show. It's an enormous role."
The fruits of Wayne's labor of love will be realized this weekend when "La Boheme" opens at the Palace Theatre for a three-week run. The opera will be staged at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and again on Nov. 10, 11, 17 and 18.
Wayne said he hasn't always been a fan of opera.
"I felt like most people do that aren't opera aficionados, that it's sort of a lofty thing and not accessible," he said. "When I saw 'La Boheme,' I thought, 'There's one I can understand. I can follow it it's got beautiful music, a beautiful story and interesting characters I can relate to personally.' And I think most people can. It's about relationships. Friendship is a huge thing in this opera."
Opera lover Tom Melville said "La Boheme" is one of the most famous and oft-produced operas in the world.
"If there's one opera you're going to take somebody to, and they've never seen opera, this is the one," Melville said. "It's the perfect combination of humor, romance and really hummable tunes." Melville is helping produce the show and sings the part of Alcindoro, a jilted suitor.
Bass baritone Bill Garry, who sings the part of the artist Marcello, said "La Boheme" is about human relationships.
"It's timeless. The same story is going on right now in New York City, in Paris," Garry said.
The story is set in Paris about 1830, where friends Rodolfo and Marcello share an attic apartment. The struggling writer and painter are poor, but helped out by their good-natured friends. On Christmas Eve Rodolfo meets Mimi, a sickly flower-shop girl, and they fall in love. Rodolfo and Mimi's passionate but troubled romance is the centerpiece of "La Boheme."
From the beginning, Dan Wayne envisioned he and his wife Kathleen in the roles of Rodolfo and Mimi. They met a few years ago when they both had roles in a Juneau Lyric Opera production. Dan said there are some advantages to a real-life couple playing a stage couple.
"You skip over that period of awkwardness of working in a romantic duo," he said. "It's easier to feel the emotions that are in the music and the writing when it's a romance and you are in love with the person that is singing to you, and that you are singing to. We are in a romantic relationship, so there's no stretch involved."
He said performing in general requires that actors trust one another, and that trust is already established.
This spring they went to Italy and while in Rome they met with members of an Italian opera company for advice about the production, and took voice and Italian lessons. Wayne said the Italians helped them get to the heart of the music.
"Some of the flavor comes out of those sessions we had in Rome," Wayne said.
Music director Hunt has seen "La Boheme" many times, in English and the original Italian, and said it's better in Italian.
"It's the perfect singer language," he said. "It's full of vowels, and the consonants tend to be very smooth. It's a beautiful sounding language."
He said between the summary of the story in the program and the action of the play, people will be able to follow the story. The show ranges from the sublime to farcical comedy, and has rich characters, he said.
"Everyone has distinct personalities. I discovered working on this show that even the smaller parts have a lot to offer the singer and actor."
Although the romance between Mimi and Rodolfo is prominent, Wayne said the friendships between the characters are some of the most moving aspects of the story for him.
"The sacrifices you make for friends," he said, "the magical way they can help erase overwhelming worries and cares. It's not a drippy sentimental thing. It has an element of reality to it, even though it's stylized."
The show also includes singers Janet Sanbei, Wade Rogers, Brett Crawford and Gregg Erickson. Pianist Sue Kazama will be the accompanist, and Gwen Morton is the stage director. Tickets are $15 at the door and at Hearthside Books.
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