Opera goes neon

'Our mission ... was, "How do you make it as much like the experience the audiences had in the 1890s?" ' - 'Moulin Rouge' director Baz Luhrmann, on his adaptation of Puccini's 'La Bohème,' which opens this weekend on Broadway

If no opera can be over until the fat lady sings, "La Bohème" on Broadway may run for a long, long time.

Australian director Baz Luhrmann is putting a cast of trim, talented 20-something singers on stage in a century-old opera sung in Italian, convinced that audiences more attuned to the pop sound of "The Lion King" and "Cabaret" will want to hear what he's calling "the greatest love story ever sung." Mr. Luhrmann says his mission is to "bring this work back to the audience it was meant for - and that's everybody. And where are you going to find everybody as an audience in the theater today? Broadway."

Based on the favorable reaction to a preview run in San Francisco, it looks as if it just may work, sweeping in young theatergoers eager to see what the hip director of the musical "Moulin Rouge" can do with another story set among young lovers in Paris.

"The Broadway smarties have said to us, 'You will fail,' " says Jeffrey Sellers, a coproducer of the show. If they succeed, more opera on Broadway could follow. "If this works, you'll see the announcement of three revivals of operas in the next six months," says his partner, Kevin McCollum. "And remember, if you pick the right ones, you don't have to pay royalties!"

"It's to be highly commended," says Jonathan Pell, artistic director of the Dallas Opera, who went to "La Bohème" in San Francisco with a highly skeptical attitude and came away impressed. "He has put on the stage Puccini's 'La Bohème.' He's just opened it up to a new audience."

The performance Mr. Pell saw, he says, "was filled with young people who came to it, I suspect, thinking that they were somehow going to see Nicole Kidman as Musetta.... At the end, they were cheering like it was a rock concert." As part of the effort to continue to attract a younger crowd of nontheater (or opera) goers, seats in the first two rows of "La Bohème" on Broadway will cost just $20, sold each day two hours before curtain.

Not 'Hamlet in Hawaii'

Puccini, who wrote the opera in 1896, set the story of four young bohemians living together in Parisian garrets in the 1830s. Luhrmann has moved the story to 1957 - not, he says, to change it, but to get closer to the emotional truth of the original.

"I'm against 'Hamlet in Hawaii,' which is updating for the sake of trying to be groovy, trying to be swingin'," Luhrmann says. The decision "came from our mission, which was, 'How do you make it as much like the experience the audiences had in the 1890s?' "

While today's audiences might have trouble relating to the clothing and lifestyles of the 1830s, he felt that 1957 would be accessible, while still being a close social and economic match to the earlier period. "Any updating shouldn't be about adding extra. It should be about revealing what is there," he says.

For most opera productions, principal singers might spend two or three weeks together in rehearsal. This cast, which includes three different couples in the romantic leads of Rodolfo and Mimi, began rehearsals more than three months ago.

Luhrmann gave the singers a huge stack of background material to read on the opera, says David Miller, who'll play Rodolfo on opening night Sunday. The atmosphere at rehearsals, says Eugene Brancoveanu, one of two singers who play Marcello, was "very supportive. [Luhrmann] was able to trigger something ... that makes you go deep, deep into the character."

The singers were given an English translation of the Italian text and then had to put that into their own words. They spent about two weeks rehearsing the opera as a play in English, using their own words, before singing a note. Later, in rehearsals, Luhrmann would clap his hands, which meant the singers must switch from English to Italian or vice versa, to make sure they knew what they were singing about.

The singers' own translations became the basis for the loose, colloquial English translation that audiences will see.

In this version of opera, "It's not enough anymore to just stand on stage and sing. You have to be able to act," says Alfred Boe, a tenor from northern England who'll rotate in the role of Rodolfo. Getting to the meaning of the words, he says, matches the "emotion in the music that Puccini wrote that makes the hair stand up on the back of your head."

Luhrmann has also stripped away operatic conventions in the staging. The set, designed by his wife, Catherine Martin (who won best Oscars art direction and best costume design for "Moulin Rouge"), lets the audience see the artificiality of the production. They watch stagehands moving sets and so on. "You show the trick," Luhrmann says, as an act of honesty, inviting the audience to join the actors in believing in the story of a tragic love. "It's unavoidably hyperromantic," he admits. "Of course, the piece works you over. Of course, you're being emotionally manipulated. But you choose to be."

"Look, we're not hiding anything," Ms. Martin says. "It's just a bunch of people onstage trying to make a show. So there's a kind of honesty and immediacy. We remove the pretense."

Could you audition for the 11th time?

To find a cast of "triple threats" - singers in their 20s who could master Puccini's three-octave range, be convincing actors, and look the part - involved auditioning more than 2,000 people. Some were called back as many as 11 times before winning their part.

While opera singers in their 20s are unlikely to have hit their vocal peak, reviews from San Francisco generally praised these "Bohème" vocal performances as being of high quality, sacrificing little vocally while presenting performers who can look and act their parts convincingly.

At least one veteran opera star agrees heartily with this approach. "I don't want to see someone 60 years old singing Rodolfo," says Marcello Giordani, one of the world's leading tenors, who has sung Roldofo a dozen times at the world's most prestigious opera houses, including New York's Metropolitan Opera and Milan's La Scala. "I would like to see a beautiful couple on stage that are very credible and honest, so that I can feel the reality of the story."

Singers from their teens to their 30s tried out, says Katherine Olsen, the show's associate music director, who has worked on "La Bohème" for about two years. "We finally narrowed it down to primarily opera singers or definitely people who had studied opera and maybe had gone a slightly different path. We have a couple of people who are from the Broadway world, but they had studied opera or are classically trained."

Ms. Olsen, who serves as voice and diction coach, will also work with the cast to see that they don't overtax their voices. Even with the rotating casts, the leads must sing three times a week - perhaps more often if they must substitute at the last moment. That's a heavy load for any opera singer, even young and eager ones.

She's hoping to set up an informal training school for all the cast, including the chorus members. "They're not going to do this show forever," she says. "We want to have a revolving door for them so they can come in and out of the show. It just builds them stronger."

"We can't run this like 'Les Miz' or 'Phantom' because our vocal standard has got to be so much higher," says Olsen, who was trained at the Juilliard School. "It's got to be a really first-rate vocal standard. Or else why do opera?"

Earning a steady paycheck

Olsen is already planning for a long run - and perhaps for a touring version of the show, something that has been rumored. "We're already auditioning all the time," she says. "It's going to be such a wonderful place for a young opera singer to get an opportunity to make a steady paycheck, to be in New York, to be on the audition circuit, and to actually learn on their feet how to perform opera."

Coming in, she was at first skeptical. The singers are miked (subtly) and a 28-piece ensemble uses two synthesizers to create the illusion of a 60- or 70-piece opera orchestra playing the full Puccini score. "I'm very anti-electronic music, and I tell you, the sound that comes from the orchestra, I don't know how they do it ... they sound absolutely beautiful," she says.

With only one intermission and a brisk pace - which musical director Constantine Kitsopoulos says mimics the way Arturo Toscanini conducted it a century ago - some audience members in San Francisco were fooled into thinking the opera had been cut. But every note is still there.

Luhrmann's 1990 Australian Opera production, on which this $7.5 million production (far from the biggest budget on Broadway) is based, was mounted when he and "C.M.," as he refers to his wife, were in their 20s themselves. For the couple, "It's a sort of farewell kiss to that whole bohemian youth of our lives."

After "Bohème" is born, and he takes a rest, Luhrmann must head back to what he calls his "day job" - making movies. Next up is "Alexander the Great," a big-budget epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio, whom Luhrmann launched into teen-idol status in his 1996 "Romeo + Juliet."

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