Brief Encounter With ... La bohème Director Robin Norton-HaleDate: 29 July 2010
Just as Kilburn was the backdrop for the original run at the Cock Tavern, Soho will also provide a very fitting setting for Puccini’s inspirational music and story. The adaptation is sung in English and has been conceived to "make La bohème as immediate, relevant, accessible and emotionally engaging for today’s audiences as it was when it was first performed in 1896".
Tell us about your staging of La bohème
Sometimes when operas are set in a different time and place to that in which they were originally, the new setting feels shoe-horned in, or you have to make lots of accommodations to it. With bohème it feels very natural - everyone in the audience has gone out on Christmas Eve and got drunk with their mates, or felt jealous of their partner’s past lovers, or cried while packing up their things at the end of a relationship. By updating it, it’s easier for the audience to appreciate that opera can be about real life.
There’s an underlying class dimension to my staging as well - Rodolfo (writer), Marcello (painter) and Schaunard (musician) have all made the choice to try to make their living being creative - which means not making much money. The problem is that if you can’t afford to do unpaid internships, or you need to support ageing parents, working in the creative industries is just not an option, so they are overwhelmingly populated by people from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds. I wanted to make the point in my staging the Rodolfo and his friends have chosen to be poor, while Rodolfo’s girlfriend Mimi (an immigrant working as a cleaner and sending money home to her family in Ukraine) does not have that choice.
Have you had to change much making the transition to the Soho?
The set in Kilburn made the most of the quirks of the venue - there was a bay window on stage which became part of the boys’ flat, and act 2 (which is set in a bar) took place downstairs in the pub itself. The designers (Kate Guinness and Lucy Read) have done a great job of recreating the intimacy and scruffiness of a student flat for the Soho stage, and we’ve persuaded Soho Theatre to let some of our chorus members become ‘bar staff’ for act 2, so the audience will be as up close and personal with the singers as they were in Kilburn.
How does it feel to be behind the "longest running opera in history"?
Are you surprised by opera's recent renaissance?
Opera has struggled with an image problem for a while now, and lots of opera companies have been trying to make it more accessible, with reduced ticket prices, bluffers guides, educational work - and operas in unusual places, gardens, railway stations, and (of course) pubs. Once people come to an opera, they usually love it - especially if they are close enough to the singers to hear the words, see the acting and to appreciate the amazing physical feat that is opera singing. As long as we get them through the door once, I believe they’ll come back!
Do you think it will still be a significant artform in 100 years' time?
Finally, why should people come and see La bohème?
La bohème continues at Soho Theatre until 4 September 2010.