Why Detroit Opera is putting its own spin on Puccini's classic 'La bohème'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Detroit-style opera? Yuval Sharon is defining it.

A year and a half after the boundary-pushing artistic director of the newly named Detroit Opera (previously Michigan Opera Theatre) arrived in the city, Sharon is doing it again — this time with the Puccini classic, "La bohème."

On Saturday, Detroit Opera's production of  "La bohème" premieres at the Detroit Opera House, and again Wednesday and April 10, but don't expect the traditional story about 19th century bohemians living and falling in love in Paris. Instead, the four-act opera, directed by Sharon, will be presented in reverse order with the fourth act first moving all the way to the first

Marlen Nahhas portrays Mimì and Matthew White plays Rodolfo in Detroit Opera's upcoming production of “La Bohème."

For "La bohème" fans, the music will stay the same, but instead of ending with Mimi's heartbreaking death, the opera concludes with hope, possibility and the promise of new love. Sharon said life is inevitably about pain and suffering but it's about building the skills to survive that pain.

"It's amazing to emphasize Rodolfo's hopefulness at the end," said Sharon. "...Doing it in reverse order says we're not going to avoid suffering in life, but we can build up the characteristics to deal with it. That can be through hope, through friendship, through love. In many ways as opposed to a more conventional 'La bohème,' what made life worth living?"

"La bohème" marks Sharon's latest nudge of traditional opera. He made a splash when Detroit Opera presented "Twilight: Gods" in a parking structure at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Two more performances were held in outdoor amphitheaters this season. And another performance was done in an iconic Detroit theater turned parking structure.

Sharon said he got the idea of presenting "La bohème" — Detroit Opera's first indoors production since COVID hit — in reverse order roughly 15 years ago after having a conversation with longtime set designer John Conklin. Conklin wondered why some classic pieces weren't mixed up and specifically mentioned "La bohème," noting that the music is very similar in the first and fourth acts.

"Ever since he said that it stuck with me," said Sharon. "I remember going home and ordering the opera in that opera just to hear what it was like and I was totally transfixed by the idea."

But a lot of theaters didn't share Sharon's enthusiasm. Over the years, he said he suggested doing ""La bohème" in different places but that he only wanted to do it in reverse order. 

"Every door was closed in my face on that one," Sharon said. "The nice ones would say 'Great idea, but not for us.'"

Wayne Brown, Detroit Opera's president and CEO, instead was open to the idea. He said if anything, the idea "wasn't totally out of the box" partly because he knew the work Sharon for which he was known. 

"I thought it was unusual, bold. I thought it was brave to take on such a task," said Brown. "But I wanted to be assured that the music does not change. And the music will not change. It's just in a different sequence. The beloved tunes, that sense of emotional connection, remains in tact."

If anything, Brown said telling "La bohème" in reverse and ending with hope and optimism is especially timely right now as the world hopefully emerges from COVID-19.

"When you think of the role of the pandemic and this sense of darkness and this pause we've been going through, once we can get out of it, we have that sense of hope and aspiration and ending in love as opposed to death," said Brown. 

Still, Sharon said it's been a process working with the entire cast to think about "La bohème" differently. He said he especially wanted to rethink Mimi's character given that she's always depicted as a fragile, suffering, "wilting flower." Legendary opera singer George Shirley, meanwhile, plays a narrator of sorts, a new role, piecing the story together.

"We had this really interesting dialogue that's happened over the last few weeks of people that say, 'Well, we've always done it this way,'" said Sharon. "And a big part of my role in this production is to say, 'Just because you've always done it this way doesn't mean that there aren't other ways to do it or other ways to explore.'"

Sharon hopes both traditionalists and opera newcomers will give it a chance.

"There's a lot to discover and a lot they'll recognize," he said. "...Audiences still want to see something that resonates with their own lives and our times." 

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

'La bohème'

Saturday, Wednesday and April 10 at the Detroit Opera House.

Directed by Yuval Sharon.

For tickets, go to https://detroitopera.org/season-schedule/la-boheme/.