Opera snobs won’t stop us going back to La Bohème

  • Written by Peter Franklin Professor of Music; at University of Oxford
Go on … you know you love it.
Go on … you know you love it.

The Royal Opera House’s restaging of La Bohème will get the same responses as any other production of the Puccini opera. The savvy enthusiast hedges cautiously, perhaps going with the sceptic’s play-it-safe response: “Well, it puts bums on seats, pays for the things we really want to see … in these difficult times, what with funding and all that, beggars can’t be choosers.”

Nor, we assume, can the punters who supposedly flock to pay for “our” more serious pleasures by avidly, repeatedly, consuming Puccini and La Bohème. Give them a bit of romantic nostalgia, a handful of tunes and the odd famous singer. Even as we fall into familiar ways of Puccini-bashing, we reconstruct the old operatic high-low divide – but here it’s less about opera versus the masses and popular culture than about “our” opera versus “theirs”.

Them and us. We, the aesthetes and intellectuals; them the masses, the rest, the other lot.

Airs and graces

That attitude to Puccini is as old as his operas (more than a century in the case of Bohème), particularly in northern climes dominated by Wagner and post-Wagnerians – the Strauss of Salome, the Berg of Wozzeck, the Schreker of Die Gezeichneten and Irrelohe.

Only not those last two, on reflection. Schreker was actually mocked as a “would-be” German Puccini by the great conductor Otto Klemperer – who would have known that Gustav Mahler, his one-time mentor, had from the start affected to mock Puccini’s Tosca as a crudely sensationalist hack-work. Mahler also claimed to prefer Leoncavallo’s now largely forgotten version of Bohème.

The persistence of anti-Puccini snobbery is part of a still-live operatic culture – its over-refined airs and expensive graces may just be froth on the surface of a mode of entertainment that subversively unites art with pleasure.

Opera is unparalleled in its ability to move. Combining naturalistic representations of things seen with the supposedly unnatural art of song, it moves us, “transports” us in often atavistic ways. It can deliver the shock of a popular thriller’s long-built-up denouement alongside the rapture of characters who can sing and dance about and through life’s most profound sorrows and ecstasies.

That feeling is hardly unfamiliar. There’s Gene Kelly, singin’ in the rain, or Dorothy imagining that land over the rainbow, or the floating and entreating outstretched arms of the ballerina heroine of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

And in La Bohème, there is the student’s new girlfriend who inspires more than the anticipation of sex when she reveals, no less intimately, the fantasy life that “keeps her going” in spite of her poverty and sickness.

Based on the popular novel

Interestingly, the Royal Opera House’s website for the production includes a page celebrating Puccini’s meticulous evocation of places, spaces, the time of day, the weather – all profoundly unfashionable on our “director’s opera” stages, bare and overbearing rooms through whose windows, if any are permitted, nothing must ever be seen.

The same site also offers a shameless trailer of John Copley’s production, featuring a climactic moment of Mimi and Rodolfo’s famous duet, in which their fantasies merge. Together they fly with momentarily transfiguring grace upon a rainbow of melody – of the kind we’re supposed to deride, precisely because it touches us (or did I mean “them”?) as viscerally and deeply as the melodramatic scenes of popular nineteenth-century novels, like Mürger’s Vie de Bohème.

O soave fanciulla.

Giacosa and Illica’s dramatic text for the opera was, after all, the libretto of an “opera-of-the-book” – a precursor to the 1930s and 1940s films based on recently popular novels that would cater to that maligned “popular audience”, crossing many classes, whose pleasures and subtleties and even whose politics deserve to be better understood.

Suburban dwarfs

Theodor Adorno, master of the superior put down, found a wonderfully self-contradictory one for Puccini in an ostensibly derogatory piece on “Music in the background” in films and cafés:

One could think that Bohème, Butterfly, Tosca, were created with the thought of imaginary pot-pourris that do not emerge until the last tear from the operatic catastrophes has dried up.

Just a few lines later, he provocatively returns to such scorned popular melodies that “wander around like ghosts” in cafés, evoking their passionate originals:

The best are the melodies with the great unbroken arcs, like the arias of Butterfly and Rodolfo. Anyone who, moved, is startled out of his conversation or thoughts after all, and who looks in that direction, is transformed into Georg Heym’s suburban dwarf: ‘he looks up to the great green bell of heaven where silent meteors cross far away.’

Well, many people live in suburbs (them and us), and even the small of stature may be moved by distant meteors – or, like Puccini’s Mimi, the first rays of the April sun across a roofscape.


  1. Peter Franklin

    Professor of Music; at University of Oxford