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Boulder Opera Launches a Pandemic-Themed Version of La Bohème

Boulder Opera is prepping for La Bohème.EXPAND
Boulder Opera is prepping for La Bohème.
Dianela Acosta

With heavy-breathing, voluminous singing and performers sharing a stage, opera isn't exactly a COVID-19 friendly art form. But even as they left the stage, local companies have found some ways to keep performances alive. Over the summer, Central City Opera shared live streams of singers belting from a balcony in the historic mining town. Opera Colorado has brought performers to the streets. 

Now Boulder Opera, which has offered streaming content and even an outdoor concert at the Boulder Bandshell, is launching an actual in-person production of Puccini's La Bohème, a perfect pandemic story about love and death from disease.

Not that it's been easy.

"In general, operational costs are higher, everything takes longer, we hold regular safety meetings, and our productions are significantly scaled back," says Dianela Acosta, Boulder Opera's executive director.

Despite COVID-19 numbers breaking unfortunate records, the show is going on — starting Friday, November 13, and running through Sunday, November 22 at the Dickens Opera House in Longmont. There will be four performances, and capacity will be limited to fifty at a time. On November 14, the company will live-stream the production on Facebook.

Westword caught up with artistic director Michael Travis Risner to find out more about how Boulder Opera plans to stage La Bohème during a pandemic.

Westword: How are you all coping through COVID-19?

Michael Travis Risner: Well, as I'm sure you're aware, employment rates for the gig and artistic economy are near zero. No matter how many other businesses open up, we are still without concert and performance venues, movie theaters, and just live entertainment in general. Broadway is still dark, the film industry is at a virtual standstill, and while smaller venues are just beginning to open, it's been a tough year for the artistic community.

As far as coping goes, I can only speak for myself, but there have been good things and bad things about the pandemic. Obviously, not being able to perform has been negative, losing my job completely and congressional deadlock...all bad. It has, however, allowed me to spend much more time with my children. Someone once said, "No amount of money can ever buy a minute of time." That's one thing I've been holding on to throughout the pandemic.

What's it like bringing opera back during a pandemic?

It will be a challenge, for sure! I think empathy and personal, human connection are things the country sorely needs right now, and there's no better community to turn to for that than the artistic one.

Phoenix Gayles plays Mimi in La Bohème.EXPAND
Phoenix Gayles plays Mimi in La Bohème.
Boulder Opera

How are you going to keep both performers and audiences safe? There are so many issues with singing, choirs, etc. How does this impact the production?

Briefly, we are adhering to all CDC guidelines, the guidelines set forth by our respective venues, and also just plain old common sense. We will do our best to minimize risk to our cast, crew, staff and patrons throughout the process. Unfortunately, there is no scenario where we incur zero risk — but we're doing all we can to minimize it. We are also encouraging our singers and crew to get tested at least once during the process for the coronavirus, and have included resources for testing in all our communications to them.

To your point about choirs and such, the benefit of doing an opera like this is that there will never be more than six people on stage at a time, and choirs and orchestras, by necessity, stand and sit near one another.

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Talk about La Bohème. It seems like an apt choice.

The beauty of La Bohème is the story is such that I could set it on the moon and it would still be an effective piece. Puccini was of the verismo school of composers: people who wanted to show what real life — albeit with heightened stakes and emotions — was like. Other operas in this genre are Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Giordano's Andrea Chenier, but while the aforementioned operas are now viewed more like melodrama, Puccini's works remain more "real." Bohème is a story of love and pain, struggles and challenges. It is my hope that audience members will see either themselves or a loved one reflected on stage.

How do you plan to stage it, and what will setting it in COVID-USA mean for the story?

Conceptual and indeed traditional staging is often dictated by budget. The Zeffirelli production of Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera has a cast of well over 100 people dressed in period costumes. Obviously, that is beyond the reach of a small company. Our producer, Dianela Acosta, made the decision to put the majority of the budget into securing the venues and actually paying the singers and staff. So I decided to set the opera in the modern day. We are also staging it with COVID considerations in place. I certainly don't want to have our audience sit there with masks on while the performers go without. We will incorporate masks on stage whenever possible and make it part of the action. Mimi is dying of what is usually played as tuberculosis — which hardly no one gets in the 21st century — but her sickness is nebulous and undefined, so why not play like she's ill with the coronavirus?

We will be social-distancing on stage, be utilizing hand sanitizer as part of the action, and refrain from extra physical contact. The challenge of a passionate show like Bohème is making such conventions and considerations work. How do we illustrate the intimacy of Rodolfo and Mimi without them being able to embrace or kiss? I'm hoping we can build enough romantic tension and attraction between them so just the gentle touch of her hand on his arm is enough.

Anything else?

I would like to emphasize that in this politically charged environment, our show is not seeking to comment on the current handling or mishandling of the pandemic in any way. I only wish to place this show in the context of our current environment and show that art can exist even in trying times.
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La Bohème runs November 13 to 22 at the Dickens Opera House in Longmont; the November 14 show will be broadcast on Facebook. For more information about times and tickets for in-person and online performances, go to the Boulder Opera website.

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