By Fred Plotkin
In the classic film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine says to Ilsa Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman), “We’ll always have Paris,” and the whole audience swoons. Bogie is referring to a brief affair they had, but the line has taken on a larger meaning. Paris, more than almost any city in the world apart from New York, is a collection of pictures and emotions that reside in the imaginations of people everywhere, including those who have never set foot in the Ville-Lumière (City of Light).
There are the landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the iconic Opéra Garnier, the gargantuan theater that is the home of the Paris Opera. But there is also the intangible Paris, the one that connotes romance, freedom, nostalgia, and doing things you can’t back home.
Paris is the city of the acceptably loose morals known as la vie bohème, which is as much a lifestyle as a life. When attending Puccini’s beloved opera La Bohème, we have a soft spot for the struggling writer Rodolfo and his pal Marcello, an aspiring painter, as well as the young women they love. Mimì is a seamstress, while Musetta is a carefree party girl who does what she wants with whomever she wants without acknowledging that she often breaks the hearts she has stolen. Opera audiences the world over love these characters, but would not necessarily want their own children to emulate them.
Puccini’s opera (with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica that is poetically plain-spoken and heart-felt rather than in formal verse) is based on a collection of autobiographical stories by Henri Murger (1822-1861) published in 1851 called Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes from the Bohemian Life). The setting is the 1830s, a time when political upheaval meant that artists lost the financial support they received from the church and the aristocracy. In its place, they sought the patronage of the rising bourgeoisie while disdaining traditional values.
The concept of Bohemianism in France dates to the time of Murger’s book. Iconoclastic, impoverished artists moved to neighborhoods frequented by Gypsies, who were thought (mistakenly) to have arrived from Bohemia, a Central European region in what is now the Czech Republic. Bohemianism—the notion of living outside of convention as might a Gypsy—became a commonly accepted term, so much so that the Gypsy Carmen is referred to as a Bohémienne in Bizet’s opera.
There seems to have been a Bohemian life for every generation. This has to do with the fact that the values of young people finding their way often stand in contrast to the people who came before them. The Jonathan Miller production of La Bohème being presented by Cincinnati Opera is set in the interwar period of the 20th century, some hundred years later than the Mimì and Rodolfo we know. And yet the transition makes sense.
The 1930s were a time of uncertainty, in which memories of war and privation merged with fears of what was to come. We know much of this era through the black-and-white photography that inspired the production you are about to see.
One photographer was Brassaï (born in Hungary in 1899 as Gyula Halász). He took his name from Brassó, his hometown. He moved to Paris at the age of 25 and made some 35,000 images before his death in 1984. Most of his negatives, contact sheets, and prints are stored in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. His black-and-white photographs depicted life in the French capital between the two World Wars as a period of social tension, economic fragility, existential philosophy, artistic daring, and all sorts of romantic couplings. People lived for today because they were unsure of tomorrow.
The Paris of Brassaï and colleagues such as Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and André Kertész was one of light and darkness, fog and shadow. The imagery we see in their photographs evokes the city they depicted. Painters, whether famous like Picasso or unknown, are at work in their studios. Writers sit at café tables in a cloud of cigarette smoke, a half-filled glass of vin de table at their side as they face the challenge of the empty page before them. Children in knee socks lean toward sailboats in a pond, unaware of the world around them. Young women stand in half-lit doorways by night under an electric sign that says “Hotel.” A couple engages in a passionate embrace in the corner booth of a bar, their faces reflected in mirrors behind them. We see interracial couples, same-sex couples, and people who live beyond the edge of convention, whether by choice or by circumstance.
Lest you think that this opera has been beloved from the start, many of the critics at the Turin premiere in 1896 found its theme repugnant. Following its Metropolitan Opera premiere on December 26, 1900, Henry Krehbiel wrote in the New York Tribune: “La Bohème is foul in subject, and fulminant but futile in its music. Its heroine is a twin sister of the woman of the camellias but Mimì is fouler than Camille, alias Violetta, and Puccini has not been able to administer the palliative which lies in Verdi’s music.”
And yet time and experience are wonderful teachers. Some Bohemians (and Puccini could be counted among them) are simply ahead of their time. So, thankfully, we will always have Paris. And we will always have La Bohème.
Fred Plotkin, author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, writes for Operavore at wqxr.org and lectures for major opera companies worldwide.