Eugene Weekly : Opera : 12.30.10


Classic Romance, Bright Future
Eugene Opera presents La Bohème, plans for Nixon in China
by Suzi Steffen

To focus on the future, sometimes one must live in the present. So it is with the Eugene Opera, where the classic tragedy La Bohème opens with three Metropolitan Opera singers this week and where board members and Executive Director Mark Beudert can’t stop talking about March 2012’s Nixon in China.

Baritone Michael Mayes sings Marcello

Not that they’re not thrilled about Bohème, everyone’s favorite Romantic plot, with starving artists dependent on sometimes distasteful patrons and a deep yet doomed love giving rise to some of Giacomo Puccini’s most recognizable and beloved arias. Beudert has a short take on why this opera, which Eugene audiences last saw in 2002 and which is one of the most performed pieces in the repertoire (second only to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly among U.S. opera companies, or so the rumor goes), deserves your attention this weekend: “Three Metropolitan Opera stars, a chorus twice the size of the 2002 chorus, the largest orchestra ever, a marching band from Sheldon and 10 children in the children’s chorus.” Add to that a recently signed contract for the orchestra, the confirmation of conductor Andrew Bisantz as music director (“He’s no longer our music guy, our music advisor, our music friend. He’s our music director,” Beudert says happily) and director Nicola Bowie, and things couldn’t be running much more smoothly. Even the bad weather on the East Coast hasn’t traumatized this year’s rehearsals the way it has in years past. 

If you’ve recently seen Rent (perhaps in the LCC production) or if you’ve ever watched Moulin Rouge, you already sort of know the plot. Both modern adaptations arise from the opera, which itself is an adaptation from a mid-19th-century French novel. Though its characters may die, the tale will not. Simply put: Rodolpho’s a poor Parisian poet; he falls for Mimi, a poor Parisian seamstress, and with their friends Marcello (an artist) and Musetta (a singer), they carouse, live, love, fight, leave, cleave and eventually finish in a scene so tragic Beudert says “it’s the greatest love story ever sung — bring your handkerchiefs because it will make you cry, and it’s as potent today as it ever was.” 

Arias and other pieces of Puccini’s music permeate popular culture and high art as well, with “Musetta’s Waltz” or “Quando Me’n Vo” possibly the most famous and familiar to U.S. audiences. Musetta will be sung by Jill Gardner, who’s joining Met Opera singers Yeghishe Manucharyan as Rodolpho, Emily Pulley as Mimi and Michael Mayes as Marcello.

That’s the present, but the future (which includes Mikado in March of this year and the glorious Carmen a year from now) is starting to look bright too. Board president Clay Skurdal says that the best news concerns the March 2012 production of Nixon in China, John Adams’ acclaimed 1987 opera about President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Chairman Mao’s China. The Eugene Opera could pull another safe and popular option out of its hat — La Traviata, Rigoletto, maybe  Die Zauberflöte — but instead, it chose Adams’ piece because it’s time for Eugene to step up, Beudert says. And others appear to agree, with the Hult Advisory Committee recommending a $47,000 grant for the production of Nixon in China to the Arts Foundation of Western Oregon Fund. 

Skurdal and Beudert both say that based on a survey of opera companies across the country, Eugene’s the only one planning to mark the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s visit with a full-scale production of the opera. “From the board’s standpoint, we looked at it and said that we need to take this art and promote it as an art form,” Skurdal says.

Beudert says that whether it’s this weekend’s Bohème or 2012’s Nixon in China, opera’s not something for specialists or a tiny slice of culture or any particular political point of view. “With opera, we in Eugene remind ourselves of who we are as human beings. We share in the mastery of an art form embodied by these treasures of culture,” he says.

La Bohème, 7:30 pm Dec. 30 & 31, 2:30 pm Jan. 2. Hult Center. or 682-5111. $20-$80