About the Opera

They never get old. The great love stories — Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Eugene Onegin, Casablanca — stay with us and make us believe, no matter how predictable and tear jerking the outcome.

And so it is with La bohème. The story of the consumptive seamstress and the impoverished poet is one of opera’s oldest chestnuts. We know when we take our seats that we’ll laugh with the happy paupers, be dazzled by the hoopla at Café Momus, marvel at Puccini’s arias, and be shattered at the end. We know, yet we return, again and again. It never fails.

It never fails because La bohème is a slice of real life. Unlike in a good many operas, the gods aren’t intruding. There are no unbelievable plot contortions. The story is simple, down to earth, believable. The characters are young, modern and in love, yet burdened with the harsh realities of life. Who can’t relate to that? And all the while we are saturated with Puccini’s tuneful score, some of the most evocative and memorable music ever composed for opera.

La bohème’s lineage begins with a young Parisian journalist, Henry Murger. He wrote a popular serial novel in the 1840s about his own life among the community of scruffy artists in the city’s Latin Quarter. The series, Scènes de la vie de bohème, became a book, which was adapted into a successful play, and later, an operetta. The Italian composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo, searching for a new idea after his smash hit I Pagliacci, jumped on the story and composed an opera, La bohème, that premiered in Venice in 1897.

Sadly for Leoncavallo, Puccini had the same idea and got there first. After the popular and critical success of his third opera, Manon Lescaut, Puccini was also looking for a follow up. Claiming when he began that he didn’t know about Leoncavallo’s project, he hired two librettists to adapt the same Murger story about starving but happy artists. In his village home in Tuscany, Puccini worked on the score. His curt comment when he learned of Leoncavallo’s nearly identical project: “Let him compose. I will compose. The audience will decide.”

A pointedly brusque dismissal, considering the two men had been collaborators, if not close friends, in the past. Puccini won the race to the box office. His La bohème debuted in Turin in 1896, a year earlier than Leoncavallo’s version, with 28-year-old Arturo Toscanini on the podium.

(Fifty years later, a Toscanini radio performance of La bohème was released on LP records and later, on compact discs. A collector’s item since it’s the only recording of a Puccini opera by the conductor of a first performance.)

While cooly received by opening night critics, Puccini’s La bohème gathered momentum and within a few years, was playing in opera houses around the world. Leoncavallo’s version was interesting — Gustav Mahler, no Puccini fan, championed it at the Vienna State Opera — but its fate was to be a good opera stacked against an all-time blockbuster. The two composers stopped speaking and Leoncavallo’s work faded into semi-obscurity.

Puccini’s work of genius, on the other hand, continues to be adored by the public and is a staple in every opera company’s repertoire. Operabase, which tracks performances world wide, reports 3,131 performances of La bohème in the 2015-16 season. It’s the most performed show at the Metropolitan Opera, with more than 1,200 performances. It has appeared in all but eight Met seasons following its premier in 1900.

Beyond Puccini’s glorious score, the story of young artists struggling to survive on the margins has its own lasting appeal. In 1996, 100 years after the debut of Puccini’s opera, composer Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent opened Off Broadway. In the purposely updated version of La bohème, a ragtag group of artists in New York’s East Village are the show’s central characters and HIV/AIDS replaces tuberculosis as death’s deliverance.

Rent was a smash hit, with songs that paralleled Puccini’s score, but it couldn’t escape the poignancy that surrounds the operatic story. After a seven-year struggle to launch the show, composer Larson died the night before the Off Broadway opening, never knowing that Rent would move to Broadway and run for 12 years, one of the all-time hits of the American musical theater.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson