“It goes by much quicker than an Avengers movie,” Andrew Bisantz says of the opera La Bohème. “There’s never a dull moment.” Bisantz, in his 15th season as the conductor of Eugene Opera, has served as the artistic director since 2017.
La Bohème opens Friday, Jan. 27, at the Hult Center for Eugene Opera’s first production of the classic since 2010. Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera is based on the 1851 Henri Murger novel Scenes de la Vie Bohème, about four struggling bohemians — a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher — living together in Paris. Everything changes for them on Christmas Eve, when a girl named Mimi knocks on their door looking for a light for her candle. A romance ensues, marred by illness and strife. Many will recognize Bohème as the source material for the 1996 Broadway musical Rent, also about struggling creatives but set in New York City during the height of HIV/AIDS.
La Bohème is a special opera for Bisantz; it was one of the first operas that he connected with and jump-started his passion for the art. “It got me excited about opera in general,” he says of seeing La Bohème as an undergraduate. “You almost immediately fall in love with it and I sure did.”
When asked whether it’s a good opera for newcomers, Bisantz is clear. “Absolutely,” he says. “Unequivocally.” It’s some of the best music that’s been written for the stage, Bisantz says. “The story is compact and efficient.”
But there’s something different about this version of Bohème: The time period has changed to the 1920s. “We want to recontextualize the opera ever so slightly; people will still see the Bohème they expect to see but with the slight updating of costume and era,” Bisantz says.
Bisantz aimed to set the opera during a time more present in the public’s collective memory, making it easier to identify with the characters. He says for audience members, the late 19th century is abstract, partly because the moving image didn’t exist yet.
This production will reference the 1918 influenza pandemic instead of cholera, as the original did. The backdrop of an epidemic may hit home for audience members in a way the 2010 production didn’t, in its evocation of the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
Bisantz hopes this 1920s twist will offer frequent opera-goers a new perspective on the classic, while introducing new opera-goers to a production of Bohème that is true to the story. “One of my goals was to take it out of 100 percent familiarity and give you more to think about,” he says.
Eugene Opera has been able to engage world class and international level soloists. “As much as I know this piece, something will catch me off guard in a wonderful way and can get me quite emotional,” Bisantz says. “And that happens regularly with this wonderful cast.”
The sets come from the Seattle Opera and will be lit by Michael Peterson, the resident lighting designer for Eugene Ballet. “He’s going to have his own take on it,” Bisantz says. The conductor says Gina Love, the costume designer, has created gorgeous pieces for the production.
“Opera is a living art,” Bisantz says. Every production is different because the cast changes and the dynamics change, breathing new life into the characters, he says. Opera is more flexible than one might think. “We’re about finding new ways to let people into the music,” Bisantz says.
La Bohème runs 7:30 pm Friday, Jan. 27, and 2:30 pm Sunday, Jan. 29, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. More info at HultCenter.org. Bisantz will give a pre-opera talk 45 minutes before both performances: 6:45 pm Friday and at 1:45 pm Sunday.