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.
The opera's ill-fated lovers are Mimi (soprano Julie Adams), a sickly yet radiant embroiderer, and Rodolfo (tenor Nathan Granner), a writer so prone to romantic gestures he offers to burn one of his own notebooks to keep him and his flatmates warm in winter. Their rundown Victorian in the Castro may have gorgeous views of Sutro Tower, but you can't eat that view.
More drama ensues against a backdrop of homeless people surviving in tents on Civic Center Plaza. The audience need not stretch mentally to get the hint the artists live one step away from living in tents themselves. Over the course of the opera, different characters obliquely reference their luck winning favors from wealthy lovers or employers, which only emphasizes how close they all live to economic ruin.
When the English super-titles display inevitable evidence of dated bits, like joking references to predatory sexual behavior that would get the males fired in a 2018 San Francisco workplace, the singers undercut the bite visually. That and the racially diverse casting signal something along the lines of, "We know. We know. Just focus on the glorious music!"
Lovely touches include Colline (bass baritone Brandon Bell) and Schaunard (baritone Kiril Havezov) playing a gay couple, and Parpignol (tenor Carmello Tringali) stunning the crowd in a dress and heels. Soprano Maya Kherani threatens to steal the stage more than once with her playful rendition of Musetta, a woman torn between her love for a poor painter and the good life wealthier men offer in return for her company.
"Bohème is one of the most popular operas of all times," says Stage Director Igor Vieira. "Most people have seen it many, many times. So how do you make people want to come see it again? Sure, they come for the music, but they also come for the drama. You need to keep making that drama fresh, and appealing, and something that people can relate to."
West Bay Opera performs La bohème at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto Oct. 12-21, 2018. For more information, click here.