backstage (2007-06)

Till the Fat Lady Sings?

Don't expect Viking horns or sloth theatrics at La bohème

by Kevin Crowe

There's a transparency and a complexity at the same time when you're at the opera. The themes are almost always simplistic, but the music--it cuts through history and culture, only to hit you at the very core, to extract a feeling that's both vestigial and, at the same time, visceral, if you allow yourself to hear it. "It's an art form that was written around the common man," says Dinyar Vania, who will be playing Rodolfo in Knoxville Opera's production of La bohème . "I don't think that humanity has changed. The feeling and emotions that we experience haven't changed.

"It's something that definitely doesn't go away from the human heart. All the great composers understood something about the human heart, and whatever they put down on paper is timeless because of that."

The music, of course, may feel complex, because the sounds are so profound, so much bigger than the plot by itself. But it's a complexity that is not at all inaccessible. "One of the things that makes opera timeless is the fusion of so many different arts, and that's what makes it so difficult," explains Robert Gardner, who will be playing Marcello, the epitome of the bohemian artist. "That's why there are so few successful operas, because it's a miracle when it's pulled off, when a composer fuses all these things together at once."

The cast has just finished performing La bohème 's finale for a small group of journalists at the Knoxville Opera office on East Depot Avenue. Mimì, played by the Brazilian soprano Edlyn de Oliveira, is on her deathbed, and the voices come together, singing in Italian. There is no translation, but it isn't necessary. Everyone in the room knows what they're singing about. Love and death: It really doesn't get any simpler than that.

At the same time, despite what you may think about opera, it remains one of the most unmistakably human art forms that has survived for centuries, always maintaining the same emotional resonance that it did when Mozart was composing and Lorenzo Da Ponte was writing librettos. In the modern opera, there aren't any fat ladies wearing Viking helmets (except, of course, in Wagner), who belt out glass-shattering notes and pointlessly droning vibratos. "It's not till the fat lady sings any more," says Alexandra Wiseman, who'll be playing Musetta. "The fat lady doesn't get hired."

La bohème is centered around a group of artists who are trying to find themselves, both artistically and, perhaps, spiritually. Jonathan Larson's Rent was an adaptation of La bohème , and Baz Luhrmann's blockbuster Moulin Rouge found plenty of inspiration from these arias.

Even when Puccini composed La bohème in the late 19th century, he was working with an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, which was based on Scènes de la vie de Bohème by Henri Murger. The historical lineage of this story could most definitely be traced further back in time, ad absurdum, because it's a story that feels human. It's a part of us, essentially.

"What's amazing about this opera--these characters are very real," Oliveira says. "They could be you or me at any moment. It can be updated. It's timeless. Who hasn't been in love before? Who hasn't fallen in love for the first time? Who hasn't fought with their lover, and had passionate temperaments? Who hasn't struggled for something they believe in? Or fought for an art form?"

"All of it," Gardner adds, "when pulled together, hits in the solar plexus like nothing else does. It's orgasmic, and people absolutely have to come back for more."

"We see that same formula plugged into lots of movies and plays," says Phillip Marlowe, who'll be playing Schaunard. "People relate so much to the characters. These characters are having struggles and difficulties and joys and pains, just as anybody else would.

"The music tells it's own story. Just by hearing it you could get a very good idea of what's going on."

And it's a story that will continue to enthrall audiences no matter how technologically advanced we become, or how far removed we may think we are from the first humans. No electronic wizardry will ever replace the feeling contained in the human voice when it's sung with a sense of who we are, and where we're going. The basic themes of humanity will always need to be sung.

"People relate so much to the characters," Marlowe says. "These characters are having struggles and difficulties and joys and pains, just as anybody else would."

"You get to take the journey with the characters," Wiseman adds. "Puccini does that so well that audiences flock to see him. If you've never seen opera, he's the perfect composer to see for the first time."

Who: Knoxville Opera