Bohemian rhapsody

A megaphone for drama: Asheville Lyric Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème includes the return of some beloved local talent (including tenor Jason Baldwin and guest conductor Robert Hart Baker), a cast of around 45, and a specially made set.

Drama sells. So does violence — and we're not just talking True Grit here. Themes common to nearly all the enduring operas are revenge and opposing forces, says stage director David Carl Toulson. However, the production he'll direct for Asheville Lyric Opera (ALO) has neither. And, says Toulson, "It's arguably the most famous opera."

It's La Bohème, the late 19th century drama by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, inspired by Henri Murger's French novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème. While the opera doesn't entail thwarted romance, military triumphs and nobility doing kingly and queenly things, it does offer up something that Toulson says is worth noting: "I hope the audience will take away the idea of camaraderie. There's a selflessness among these characters."

Bohème is the story of a group of artists who live in a garret (an attic apartment) in Paris during the 1830s. The focus is on the somewhat star-crossed love story between seamstress Mimi (performed by Angela Amidei) and poet Rodolfo (performed by local leading tenor Jason Baldwin, who had a small role in ALO’s 2000 Bohème debut). Other members of the group include philosopher Colline (Ardean Landhuis), musician Schaunard (Brent Davis) and Musetta (Christina Villaverde), the estranged lover of painter Marcello.

Local baritone Dominic Aquilino (whose grandmother, by the way, was an opera singer in Germany) will perform the role of Marcello for ALO. "He's the leader of this band of starving artists," says Aquilino of his character. "He's not the oldest, but he's the most grounded. The most responsible. These days, he'd be the one on the lease."

If that modern revelation seems strange for an opera composed more than a century ago, Toulson says "Some characters could use some massaging to make them appealing to a modern audience." Typically, that means softening mannerisms that come across as chauvinistic. Bohème is a little bit different in that way — while the concept of bohemianism has been assimilated into modern vernacular, in Puccini's day the lifestyle was a fairly new and forward-thinking concept. "The bohemians were not the people who were doing everything they were supposed to," says Toulson. "They explored ideas of love and art." (In recent years, Bohème has inspired shows like RENT and Moulin Rouge!)

Toulson recommends that audiences for this particular opera "look for the relationships between the characters. In addition to the romance, there are the fraternal relationships. These are a testament to the bohemian lifestyle."

Bohème is well-known; even though it's sung in Italian, subtitles, or opera titles are projected above the performance, and a printed synopsis is available at the theater. According to Aquilino, it's "so accessible — probably one of the best operas to see for the first time. The tunes are familiar, the characters are familiar and if it's done well, it's a theatrical piece. You're not really noticing that you're seeing opera." This creates a familiarity for the performers, too.

Aquilino has performed the role of Marcello five times and a couple of other roles two or three times (this will be his first time performing Marcello with ALO, though he's been in ALO productions before). He says, "I approach it as, 'what can I bring to the character?'" Of bringing a group of performers together: "You stir the pot and see what flavors come out. It has the potential to be a great, character-driven production."

Toulson says that because the performers already know the roles, the fun will come with honing "every look, every head-turn." There’s also a nice sense of nostalgia: Robert Hart Baker, who conducted to 2000 ALO debut of Bohème, returns as this production’s principal guest conductor. Still, Toulson will be putting his own stamp on the production with what the opera company describes as "a new and fresh interpretation of the show."

That Toulson should bring a slightly unusual perspective to Bohème seems warranted: The stage director initially pursued a degree in hotel and restaurant management. Later, while working on a graduate degree in voice, he was offered an assistantship directing an opera. When the lead director fell ill, Toulson took charge and realized that directing was his calling. Ironically, he says, young directors "tend to get hired for comedies, which can be very difficult to direct. But people would rather take a risk on comedy than on drama. It's only in the last few years that people have said, 'Come direct our Rigoletto, our Bohème.'"

Toulson's take on Bohème doesn't stray far from the original, but the custom-made set offers a few surprises. "I didn't feel like we could compete with a Metropolitan Opera-style production," he says. When he thought about the advantages of a smaller production he realized it's "the intimacy between the cast and audience. You can see them sweat. You can hear them breathe. You're involved." To capitalize on that propinquity, Toulson decided to go with bare-bones scenery. "For the color, I decided it should all be in a white hue," he says. That way, any other color — especially the costumes — "will be a megaphone for the drama."

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: Asheville Lyric Opera presents La Bohème
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Friday and Saturday, April 1 & 2 (8 p.m., adults $29-$52/students $16-$34. ashevillelyric.org)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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