It's a scene straight out of the headlines: Six artists living in San Francisco's Tenderloin district sitting in their living room, optimistically trying to scrape together their overdue rent.
Now imagine they’re singing about it in Italian.
A full 120 years after Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème premiered in Italy, San Francisco’s chapter of the high-art-made-accessible company Opera on Tap has reimagined the story, setting their production in modern-day San Francisco. For the local singers performing La Bohème at the Tenderloin’s EXIT Theatre, the scene couldn’t be more timely.
“We are all artists who are struggling with trying to make ends meet in a very expensive city, and that’s exactly the story of La Bohème,” explains Indre Viskontas, the founder of Opera on Tap’s San Francisco chapter, who co-manages with four other "divas."
Viskontas identifies the Tenderloin as a neighborhood where “you can bump into people who are in the tech industry, people who are awash with money, but also people who are really struggling, and just people in general who are really interested in creating something that will change the world... We thought that our audiences would get captured into the spirit of [La Bohéme] just walking up to the theater.”
But if one can relate to struggling artists, can they relate to opera? This is where Opera on Tap, a national organization with chapters in major cities from Brooklyn to Berlin, is determined to change audience's minds. “You don’t have to be a millionaire white dude who is in his '60s to like opera,” says co-managing "diva" Jessie Neilson.
“I think a lot of people just think, ‘Ewww, opera, it’s long, it’s gross, it’s in a foreign language, it’s boring, it’s for old people.’ I mean, I was one of those people,” Neilson admits. “I actually didn’t like opera. I wanted nothing to do with it. I went to my first opera and begged my parents to leave at intermission. I thought it was the worst.” (It wasn’t until Neilson begrudgingly auditioned for an opera to fulfill a scholarship requirement at Michigan State University that she began to fall in love with the art form.)
Opera on Tap’s production, on the other hand, is immediately accessible. As directed by Kenneth Keel -- he and Neilson are married -- this La Bohéme reflects the concerns of the current Bay Area: tech culture collides with hipster culture, and an Apple Watch becomes a significant prop. Though the production is sung in the original Italian, Opera on Tap projects English translations of the libretto above the stage with modern (read: explicit) language.
Another appeal to opera newcomers is that no act runs longer than 30 minutes, so audiences only commit to two hours, including intermission. (You can’t even get out of a Marvel movie that quickly.) And in keeping with the “Tap” in Opera on Tap, attendees can drink beer or wine from the EXIT Theatre’s bar while watching the performance.
Viskontas believes that for those curious about opera, La Bohème is the ideal place to start. By highlighting everyday conversations and characters, Puccini broke away from traditional opera at the time, and anyone who's seen the musical or movie Rent is already familiar with the storyline.
With main characters double-cast, Opera on Tap provides a platform for both well-known Bay Area opera singers like Morgan Harrington, William O’Neill, and Joseph Meyers and up-and-comers like Greg Allen Friedman. An experienced string quintet from San Francisco Opera conducted by Jerome Lenk serves as the pit orchestra.
The struggles with housing in the show hit especially close to home for Neilson. After six years of living in San Francisco and four years working with Opera on Tap, she and her husband Keel are leaving San Francisco soon for new opportunities in Nashville. Neilson sees her performance in the role of Mimi as her symbolic farewell to the city.
According to Viskontas, who plays the role of Musetta, “That joie de vivre and the struggle is something that I think resonates with all of us in the cast, and it’s really hard for us to get through a rehearsal without feeling that loss at the end of the opera. I still haven’t gotten through a rehearsal without choking up at some point because it just feels so raw and so close to a lot of the struggles that we go through.”
'La Bohème' runs February 19–20 and Feb. 26–27 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. For more information, visit Opera on Tap's San Francisco website.