Low-rent rhapsody

It’s just such an Asheville story.

Two highly creative yet unemployed roommates — an artist and a poet — live in a run-down apartment in one of the city’s more disreputable areas. They dodge rent, commit a little dine-and-dash, and party frequently on the charity of their working friends.

And, of course, they play at love — unhappy when they don’t have it, jealous and smothered when they do. That is, until one of them, as if by accident, actually becomes enamored of a fashionably pale, seemingly perfect young woman.

“I once thought my heart was hardened for good, then two beautiful eyes changed that forever,” love-struck poet Rodolfo said about his sickly Mimi in one translation of this classic tale. “My heart has melted, I try to hide it, but I’m in such torment that it’s impossible.”

By the story’s third act, however, the lovers’ relationship has come undone.

This is the eternally modern plot of La Boheme, written by Italy’s master opera composer Giacomo Puccini at the very end of the 19th century. It’s a story of urban romance — a fragile, intimate tale of new love beating with the heart of a nation-sweeping epic.

We can all relate.

We want the lovers — however flawed and roguish they may be — to be happy. Their aimless creativity and baffled attempts at commitment make them just like people we know. Except that they sing their way through their personal dramas.

But even as they so narrate their lives, we root for a happy ending. Certainly not marriage or children, per se, but some ideal resolution that might offer hope to fellow screw-ups.

Of course, this is opera, and somebody’s got to die. Puccini was too brilliant to offend audiences with anything less than a dramatic sucker punch when they were most vulnerable.

It’s what makes La Boheme such a classic work of tragic beauty — and it’s part of the reason Asheville Lyric Opera premiered with it five years ago in conjunction with The Asheville Symphony, confirms ALO founder David Craig Starkey.

When we talk, Starkey is in Florida, where he’s currently directing a production of La Traviata.

“Part of the nature of artistic scheduling of an opera company,” he explains over cell-phone static, “is to rotate the very strong and popular and delightful pieces of the operatic repertory, and the five-year anniversary seemed like a natural time for us to bring [La Boheme] back.”

Asheville Lyric Opera does well in infusing a major-metro mentality into its productions, while still making a place for local performers. The latest La Boheme will star apparent ringers — big-name singers like Jonathan Hodel (the poet Rodolfo) and Lisa Williamson (Mimi, his sickly love interest) — alongside townies filling the other substantial roles. Asheville-based singer Jonathan Ross, for instance, plays the anomalously employed friend Schaunard.

Where possible, ALO has also tried to keep its musical family close.

Casting has involved attempts to bring back performers from the original production (like Branch Fields, who returns in the role of Colline), while adding new blood as well.

“It’s not always possible to bring back people,” Starkey explains, “because after five years, they are usually at a significantly different place in their careers. They may not want to return to that role, or they may not have the availability.”

All of this sounds nice. But the real question I want Starkey to answer concerns the philosophical bond between Puccini’s setting and ALO’s namesake city. Asheville, after all, has frequently been dubbed a bohemian place. It is, at least, a town of aspiring artists, and others fashioning artful lives.

Does Starkey, a former resident of that decidedly bohemian mecca known as New York City, see a connection?

“I think the essence of a true bohemian community has to have a lot of layers to it,” he says. “The play takes place in Paris, [where] there is such a mix of cultures and financial influences — something that only a large city can provide. I think that Asheville cannot truly claim this, because it’s not a massive metropolitan district.”

The manifold complexities of bohemianism notwithstanding, Starkey does concede that “Asheville is uniquely able to identify with La Boheme‘s characters.

“There are certainly aspects in Asheville of a modern-day arts community,” he continues, “and there are people in Asheville that certainly fit the same bill as the characters in La Boheme.

“People always migrate through those elements at stages in their lives.”

Asheville Lyric Opera presents La Boheme at Diana Wortham Theatre on Friday, Jan. 30 and Saturday, Jan. 31. Both shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $24-$34. For reservations and more information, call 257-4530.


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