La bohème is one of the most popular operas of all time, and it’s back at Leeds Grand Theatre this month. Opera North’s take on Puccini’s heart-wrenching opera was originally conceived by Phyllida Lloyd – who went on to direct Mamma Mia! and the Oscar-winning The Iron Lady. She transports the action to the smoky cafés and garrets of 1950s Paris where we witness the tragic love affair between two impoverished bohemians, seamstress Mimì and poet Rodolfo, who meet one freezing Christmas Eve.
NRTH LASS caught up with Lauren Fagan and Eleazar Rodriguez who play the ill-fated lovers on opening night (there are two casts alternating over the course of the run). They are also performing at the company’s first dementia-friendly performance on 24 October. Henry Neill, who sings the part of Rodolfo’s friend Schaunard, and revival director Michael Barker-Caven joined the conversation.
NL: Tell us more about La bohème. What's it about?
L: It’s a story of beauty, love and, ultimately, tragedy. Life and death basically!
M: As you watch it, it’s like going from a big evening, feeling that life is nothing but a party, to discovering that the morning after can actually be a place of terrifying shadow. You didn’t know that, of course, when you were dancing the night away and believing life was just joyful and fun.
H: I think people will find it really familiar. We’ve all been there, especially students. We have the mate who’s the joker, we have the mate who’s the intelligent guy, so immediately that’s something that’s basically straight from young people’s lives, and then the story is born out of that.
M: Everything feels like you’ve been there, seen it, done it. That’s what’s remarkable about it. Anybody who’s never been to the opera, this is the place to start because you will come and learn that great opera is about you.
NL: What's this particular production like?
M: I’m reviving a piece that was first done in the early ’90s. It’s stood the test of time, so the pleasure for me as a director is not messing it up basically! It’s set in a world that people will recognise: the young people have motorbikes, they’re drinking out of bottles, they’ve got leather jackets on, things like that. There’s also a modern art element – a visual homage to the Jackson Pollocks of this world, the Hockneys, all those artistic icons. You get this commercial pop art world beginning to come through juxtaposed with the harshness of real life.
What’s really exciting about this production though, is that it’s young people who sing this extraordinary, vibrant piece of work. Every bit of it is gripping to watch and that’s all credit to these wonderful casts. They’re bringing their lived experience into it and making everything come alive.
E: I think for us the challenge is that we know what’s going to happen in the opera, but we have to keep it really fresh in every phrase we do. Everything we sing, everything we act, it has to be like it’s the first time it’s ever happened.
NL: Why are you doing a dementia friendly performance and how will it be different?
H: Research consistently shows that music can be an incredibly powerful force for people with dementia, so we hope this will make a real impact on them and their families. We’re looking forward to it as singers, because the lights will be on we’ll be able to see a bit more and the auditorium should have a very different feel.
E: For me, it’s wonderful to make opera accessible to anyone. Inclusivity is one of my favourite words!
NL: What kind of music can people expect?
M: If people are going “I wouldn’t like opera – it’s all that weird screeching”, then they should experience this. It’s full of melody, it’s full of the most beautiful tunes, it’s full of this extraordinary playfulness. It’s so fresh. In fact, the paradox is that it feels like it’s been written by a young person, and yet it’s written by a mature genius. The skill and the originality are simply breath-taking.
La bohème opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 12 October and runs until Saturday 26 October before touring to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Nottingham Theatre Royal and The Lowry at Salford Quays. £10 tickets are available at every performance for under 30s.
Photo credit: Richard H. Smith