This weekend and next, West Bay Opera of Palo Alto delivers Giacomo Puccini's classic, La bohème, set in today’s San Francisco. Which is to say, against a backdrop of extreme economic disparities and epically widespread homelessness.
A story originally set in 1830s Paris, bustling with industry and also poverty, makes perfect sense transposed to the Bay Area, given how many people have already been, or are on the verge of, being priced out.
West Bay Opera certainly wouldn't be the first to employ this staging strategy. The opera's themes have proven resonant over more than a century in many different productions and adaptations. Think of Jonathan Larson's rock musical RENT, set in AIDS-riddled 1990’s New York. Or closer to home, Opera on Tap's San Francisco take performed at the Tenderloin’s EXIT Theatre in 2016.
West Bay Opera’s general director Jose Luis Moscovitch says, "We have parallels that we can certainly highlight to make people aware of the plight of artists; who, after all, are the creative class, the people that make San Francisco and the Bay Area such a unique place. We need to think about what to do to help them stay."
That train has largely left the station. In a sense, the most poignant tragedy of West Bay Opera's staging is the ever-present sense of how hard it is for real artists off-stage to hang on in the Bay Area. We watch a small social circle of friends grasp vainly for happiness in a world indifferent to their slow, grinding starvation. That they laugh and sing Puccini's soaring melodies along the way is reason enough to break out the Kleenex.