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Theater view at dusk

From the Director's Chair: Mary Birnbaum on "La Bohème"

By Mary Birnbaum


From the Director’s Chair: Mary Birnbaum on “La Bohème”

Our Bohème takes place in Paris, around 1838 — a time when Parisians were disenchanted with the governance of Louis Phillipe, who had purported to be the citizen king but ended up living off of the fat of his subjects, assisted by François Guizot, who advised anyone who wanted to participate in government to just “get rich!”

This was a time when Parisians were obsessed with themselves — Paris was called the capital of the Nineteenth Century for a reason — and authors made “physiologies” which listed all of the Parisian personality and class types, from flâneur to bohemian to ragpicker, by location and number (and even sometimes by the way they walked down the street).

Director Mary Birnbaum. Photo by Sydney Angel

Director Mary Birnbaum. Photo by Sydney Angel

The numbers of the bourgeoisie, usually financiers, bankers and industrialists, were growing, and they stood for convention and morality. Bohemians were a clear type — and had been “discovered” by Henri Murger, whose father was a landlord to many of them. He became a bohemian himself and documented stories of he and his friends in Scènes de la vie de bohème, which made him very wealthy and into a member of the haute bourgeois.

But only men could be bohemians. So where does that leave our female heroines? In our production, Mimì will be considered a grisette — a type of woman who was usually a seamstress for money, hung out with students, and would trade intimacy for material goods, say, a bonnet. Musetta will fall into the category of a lorette, a woman who borrowed from the costume traditions of men and women to wear what she pleased and date whom she liked — no matter what strata of society they fell into. Georges Sand was an example of a lorette.

For us, Bohème is a story about creativity and compromise. How can artists survive in a climate of change? And how can you be creative in a world where creativity is not valued? (The tie-ins to today are more than obvious.) Our bohemians begin the story impervious to the changing weather around them, but by the end they learn that they need to adapt or drown in the rising tide of convention. Their romantic illusions fracture and their creativity is bartered or pawned for stability and safety.

To that end, we wanted to use water as a design metaphor for creativity, and the transformation of it throughout seasons takes us through all four acts of the piece. Before the music begins, we contemplate Paris in the distance, a shining city. Like the memory of our youths, it appears way better the further away it is. Paris starts out looking idyllic but then it starts to rain.

In Act II, we are in an icy wonderland, replete with Musetta on ice skates. In Act III, we experience snow in gusts and on objects. And in Act IV, there’s a thaw, and the world (and all the bohemians hold dear) fractures and melts away from itself, isolating the bohemians. Whereas our four bohemians are impervious to the weather (and think they can beat it) Musetta is a sort of weathervane in our production, and at the beginning of every act, she helps us understand the weather in some way. Whether by opening an umbrella in Act I or stepping over puddles in Act IV. Mimì is, of course, prey to the weather, as so many who are outside the culture are — the wet and cold is inside of her and takes over.

The approach we’re taking is a deeply human one — to that end, intellectual and physical presence in rehearsal and outside of it is very valued, as well as emotional availability. For me, staging is a process of uncovering and revealing — and to that end, I like to create a structure and then dissect it and analyze it. For me a piece is never done, it’s a constant tool for deeper exploration, especially when it is a masterpiece like Bohème.

—Mary Birnbaum

La Bohème opens the 2019 season on June 28 and runs until August 24.

The cast of La bohème features soprano Vanessa Vasquez, soprano Gabriella Reyes, tenor Mario Chang, baritone Zachary Nelson, baritone Will Liverman, bass Soloman Howard and bass-baritone Dale Travis. Jader Bignamini conducts.

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