The Composer's Vision: The Production Style of La Bohème
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What bothered them? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs and Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about this Met production—in short, to see themselves as La Bohème experts.
That expertise holds special currency since very few operas are produced more frequently, in more theatres around the world, than this one. The Metropolitan Opera Company first performed La Bohème while on tour in Los Angeles in November 1900. The Met Archives hold a set of designs produced by Puccini’s original publisher, meant to show directors exactly what the characters should wear.
The Met followed those guidelines throughout the first half of the 20th century. Then, over the course of three decades, audiences got to enjoy three different Met productions, culminating in 1981 with the Franco Zeffirelli staging your students experienced in HD.
Zeffirelli’s beloved production is a grand and spectacular affair, with sets and costumes designed to realistically and in great detail depict 19th-century Paris. Such an approach is becoming less and less common, both for economic and artistic reasons. (At the other end of the interpretive spectrum, the Met’s critically acclaimed 2010 production of Verdi’s La Traviata features a single set decorated almost entirely in white, black, and red, as well as contemporary costumes, bringing a stunning immediacy and timelessness to a classic story.)
It can be useful for students to identify specific details of a production, then to use them as evidence in characterizing its overall style. That characterization might involve terms like realistic, symbolic, traditional, or contemporary, or it might use terms from students’ own critical vocabularies. Students can use their My Highs and Lows sheets and their notes on props to develop a characterization of the HD production they experienced—not based on opinion but on critical descriptions.
Once they have articulated their sense of this production, it’s time to introduce them to possibilities explored in other production styles: changing an opera’s setting in time or place, while maintaining a degree of realism; creating a more symbolic setting; and so forth. You’ll find a wide range of images from current and recent Met productions in the company’s online database at archives.metoperafamily.org. Discuss these images, encouraging students to apply the same type of critical description before distinguishing among or characterizing the different approaches.
Having held back their opinions to first identify the “facts,” now students can address the overriding question: an opera production can adhere to the composer and librettists’ initial vision, or today’s artists can search for new meanings, designing sets and costumes that create a dramatically different experience and reveal contemporary relevance in a time-honored story. Which approach does more justice to an opera? Which better serves the audience?
If appropriate in your classroom, this can be a fine topic for a formal debate. Alternatively, you might invite students to “contribute” to an academic journal publishing a special issue on the topic, exercising their skill in persuasive writing. Either way, in preparing their presentations, students should feel free to use materials on the Met web site to shape and support their arguments.