Cowtown brings La Boheme to modern-day Calgary

Cowtown Opera artistic director Michelle Minke calls Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème the “ultimate opera.”

“It has the most famous melodies the most famous scenes and arias and it demands so much of the singers and musicians” she says.

Cowtown opens its 2013-14 season with a modernized version of the opera which debuted in 1896. La Bohème tells the story of four bohemians — a poet a painter a musician and a philosopher — who are living loving and starving in 19th-century Paris.

The poet Rodolfo falls in love with Mimi a poor seamstress while the painter Marcello’s sweetheart is a coquette named Musetta. Mimi’s battle with tuberculosis interrupts her and Rodolfo’s happiness together. In the ultimate example of “being cruel to be kind” Rodolfo is nasty to Mimi to try and force her to leave him so she will seek a wealthier lover who has the money to take care of her properly.

At first wounded by Rodolfo’s seeming anger and jealousy Mimi eventually finds out the real motive behind his actions. They stay together until the spring and then part ways amicably with Mimi returning at the end of the opera to die in Rodolfo’s arms.

Minke says La Bohèm e is one of the most famous examples of verismo operas popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries which featured stories of the working class. “Everything that happens dramatically happens in the music — the truth is in the music” Minke adds.

In keeping with Cowtown Opera’s mandate to make opera more accessible to the masses this version of La Bohème is set in the present day.

In fact the company purchased a libretto (text) from Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre which also presents contemporary versions of some of opera’s most famous works. Against the Grain’s libretto sets the opera in Toronto and Cowtown has replaced the Toronto references with Calgary ones.

Minke says audiences should listen for mentions of landmarks like Caffe Beano The Ship & Anchor Fair’s Fair bookstore and Cowboys. And instead of being a poet Rodolfo is a writer for Fast Forward Weekly .

“They are regular people in La Bohème . Some of the artists who come to see the show will be able to relate to the struggling to pay rent” says Minke who plays Mimi in the production. “It’s such a beautiful story a heavy story.”

Aaron Coates directs the cast of nearly 20 people who are accompanied by a piano. Minke says La Bohème ’s score demands “commitment passion and emotion” from the singers due to its long musical phrases. “You don’t want to break the phrases. The longer you (a singer) can carry a phrase the better audiences can feel the angst and pain. For singers it’s quite demanding” she explains.

“I think this is going to be our best production yet. Our cast is superb. We’re having trouble sleeping because we’re so emotionally involved.”