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Brief Encounter With ... La bohème Director Robin Norton-Hale

By • Off-West End
Robin Norton-Hale is the adaptor and director of La bohème, which has been transported to modern day Soho from the original in 1830’s bohemian Paris.

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
La bohème is often thought of as a tragedy, but actually the tragic part comes only in the last ten minutes or so - it’s really a drama about a bunch of young men living together, falling in and out of love, and making fun of each other while doing so.

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?
There were some specific references to Kilburn and north-west London (when one of the characters goes up in the world, she is seen driving an MG in Maida Vale - now she is in Bloomsbury Square) which I’ve adapted for Soho. It’s actually quite a like-for-like swap in terms of area. Even though Soho is in the heart of the west end it’s still a mixed area with lots of deprivation, and run-down sex shops next to pricey members clubs.

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"?
Of course it’s very exciting - but what is more satisfying for me was the range of people who are coming to see it. Opera companies are always trying to woo younger audiences, and it was great that a large proportion of our audience were in their twenties. Even better though, in talking to people at the show I discovered that there were lots of people of all ages who had never been to the opera before, as well as Royal Opera House and ENO regulars who’d seen every production of bohème for the last 40 years! We didn’t set out to create a ‘young person’s’ version of La bohème - just to tell the story truthfully, and I think that’s why it worked.

Are you surprised by opera's recent renaissance?
No, because opera is in many ways the most complete form of theatre - really tightly constructed drama, stories told succinctly through the text (the librettos are often overlooked, but lots of them are excellent), with the advantage of music to add depth to the emotion, or indicate that a character is saying one thing but feeling another, or to bring a party scene alive, and so many much more.

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?
I do, because it’s adapting all the time. There are new operas being written for huge stages and for the fringe, and everything in between. And as long as there are no rules about what you can and can’t do with opera, there will always be new and exciting ways to present the old favourites as well. Opera is such a diverse artform - if people say “I hate opera”, I don’t believe them - I just think they haven’t seen one they like. No one would say “I hate films”, even if they’d not enjoyed that last 5 things they’d watched at the cinema.

Finally, why should people come and see La bohème?
You’ll recognise yourself or people you know in the story, the music is gorgeous and performed by singers who are the age of characters they are playing (very rare in opera!) and - and this is what surprises people most - it will make you laugh as much as it makes you cry.

La bohème continues at Soho Theatre until 4 September 2010.


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