The streets of Paris lie ruined and deserted. The army rules the country and a deadly illness – the result of chemical warfare – is ruthlessly picking off its victims. This dystopian vision is the setting for a new production of Puccini’s classic love story, La bohème, taking place in Shoreditch, London this month. The director, Andrew Staples, has previously sung the role of Rodolfo but is now overseeing this radical re-imagining of the opera.
From 19th century Paris to an apocalypse: that’s quite a seismic change. Why did you make this switch?
One of the main problems I felt we had to solve with La bohème was the nature of the death – Mimi is dying of tuberculosis and when this opera was premiered in the late 1890s, there were a lot of people still dying of TB. Now people don’t die of that in the same numbers in Europe, so I wanted to try and find a context that made the story more relevant. When you hear about La bohème, it often just sounds like a very lovely, sad story. But in fact it needs to be very immediate and urgent.
But what about the pure enjoyment factor?
There’s a misconception that enjoyment needs to be light entertainment. I think there’s an amazing enjoyment in investing in a character, learning about someone and sharing, in a sort of cathartic way, their journey through the piece. That said, we’ve tried to maintain this ethos that La bohème is a comedy with a sad ending rather than a dark, depressing piece where people die all the time.
So what have you kept of Puccini’s original opera?
The storytelling and the music. People have lost patience for things that are imposed on stories: concepts. We’re trying to avoid any feeling that this a gimmick and instead trying to find a way of telling a story as honestly as we can, in a context which resonates with an audience but without having to change a word or a note. I think it’s legitimate to move an opera to a new time or place as long as you realize that it’s not imposing a concept but providing a context. Great theatre can operate in jeans and a T-shirt in a field – you don’t need all the trappings of an opera house or a theatre if you control the story correctly.
On your website you call the production ‘immersive’. Can you explain a bit more about that?
It all goes back to telling a story and how you can remove the barrier between the audience and the action. The audience has to enter through the checkpoint at the beginning of Act III, so that when they see characters enacting a love scene through a fence they literally have been there and know what it feels like. It’s a way of involving everyone in the same context. A parallel might be if you play in a football match one morning and then watch a football match that afternoon, you invest more because you’ve just done it yourself.
You’re using Jonathan Dove’s reduction of the opera. What’s that like to perform?
I sung Rodolfo using this reduction a couple of years ago and it’s very clever. Everyone in the orchestra has to be involved: the trombone has to play the triangle and the harpist has to play the cymbals and it doesn’t have a chorus either. Dove has reduced the orchestra so that all the excitement and harmonies are still there, but there are 15 players rather than 80 or 90. So it’s ideal for touring.
Vignette Productions’s La bohème is on at The Village Underground, Shoreditch on 26 & 28 July before touring the UK
Interview by Elizabeth Davis