While I was preparing to attend this production by the IN Series (ensconced at GALA Hispanic Theatre for this event), I read somewhere that the only thing you can do with La Bohème is f**k it up. Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème is brazenly and unrepentantly romantic. And there does seem to be something indestructible about it.
The IN Series production Boheme in the Heights makes evident, though, that there are other things you can do with this workhorse of the operatic canon besides diminish it in some way. For example, you can use it to explore questions such as: what is opera, really? And, further: what and who is opera for?
The characters in Boheme in the Heights are Afro-Latinx. While many of them are light-skinned, they are neither “white” nor “Anglo.” Further, the story has been relocated to the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC, which is where the performance venue in which I saw it is located. The idea that opera doesn’t have to be — or to be more proactive, here, will no longer be — a space reserved solely for the telling of European stories is not new. (For example, who doesn’t know the songs from Porgy and Bess?) But this idea is not yet common business practice. Which is why, for now anyway, Boheme in the Heights remains a novelty.
The word opera means “work” or “works.” I have read that it can also loosely mean WORK in the sense of throwing everything that you have, heart and soul, into your effort. And in that sense opera — hopefully — magnifies the humanity to which its machinery is applied.
Boheme in the Heights tells the tragic love story of Rodolpho (a writer) and Mimi (a seamstress and neighbor). Rodolpho shares a flat with Marcelo (a painter), Schaunard (a musician), and Coline (a philosopher). This crew tries to make a living at their various crafts, living hand-to-mouth. One Christmas Eve Mimi knocks on their door to ask for a charge for her phone. Mimi and Rodolpho fall in love and begin an affair the proceeding of which is told in tandem with that of Marcelo and Musetta (a singer), whose love affair has been on-again, off-again for years. Unfortunately, Mimi has an illness that is exacerbated by the fact that she and Rodolpho are poor and cannot afford a doctor. This puts stress on the relationship, and Rodolpho attempts to break up with Mimi only to reconcile because of the strength of their love. In the final scene, Mimi and Rodolpho reunite one last time and she dies in his arms.
In this production, this story is presented as a silent film that includes live-action images of the actor-singers embedded in animation (Emma Ayala) that fluidly portrays the feelings and thoughts that permeate and affect the everyday reality around the characters. The singing that is meant to come from the characters on the screen is performed live with keyboard accompaniment. The live singing sometimes synchronizes perfectly with the image onscreen and sometimes not. You might imagine that this lack of synchronization would be an irritation, but that was not my experience. Instead, it felt like there were multiple augmented realities that we were experiencing in the room. Contrary to what happens when the sound is on the same piece of film as the images you are watching, this live performance brought the breath and urgency that the on-screen characters were experiencing out into the same room that we occupied as audience members. We experienced these human sounds — of suffering, ecstasy, joy, and hope — without the intermediaries of vinyl and needle or cellulose acetate and light. At the same time, the images moved in confluence with the changes in the music. One stroke of the paintbrush and the wall it touched was drenched in swirling, rhythmic colors. One command from Rodolfo and pages of his script floated across the room and into the furnace to warm the room briefly.
Because performers were each filmed separately (a collateral effect of COVID) then brought together in the editing process, the actors on screen were rarely in the same plane with one another. Instead of looking amateurish, this choice made sense of how people could be singing at such high intensity and enough volume to fill an auditorium and yet behave as though they were having an intimate everyday conversation. It made it seem that each of the characters was occupying their own emotional space while at the same time being in the same physical space. This way of staging the actors took us into a space that was choreographic and bordered on what I would call poetic. (If you have ever seen Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, in which people in deep states of suffering occupy intimate spaces but look and move as if they were in their own world, you will understand what I mean.) I wondered if this is what it was like to go see silent film events in their heyday. It would certainly explain why so many movie theaters were built like palaces or sanctuaries. This was magical. This was really something.
We had been asked not to applaud until the end of each act so that the performers could remain in sync as much as possible with the projected image. So, in a way, we, the audience, had been given our parts to play to help ensure the success of the performance. Without that request for restraint, the audience would surely have burst into applause at numerous moments throughout the presentation, not least at the expected bravura performance of “Musetta’s Waltz” by Melissa Wimbish. The silence in the audience that preceded the beginning of the second half of the evening (Acts 3 and 4) was the kind that one renders not to stars and celebrities so much but to moments that are — for lack of a better word — sacred. I remember experiencing just such a silence in the audience at the beginning of the second act of the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George. As the title of one Zora Neale Hurston novel puts it: “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
The live singers were in shadow throughout the projection of the film. This added to the feeling that these folks were hard at work and that we were being privileged to witness artists focused on engaging with their craft, rather than selling their performances.
Boheme in the Heights is to a certain extent about young people fighting to survive. Many of the people involved in putting this production together, especially the animation, were young artists. In his welcome to the audience, IN Series artistic director Timothy Nelson highlighted how encouraged and inspired he had been during the mounting of this production as he repeatedly witnessed, in the young people working on this production, the “power of youth to insist on life” despite illness, hardship, systemic oppression, and whatever forms of exploitation and disappointment are thrown at them.
Running Time: Approximately two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Boheme in the Heights, an animated Spanish-language Afro-Latinx reimagining of Puccini’s La Bohème presented by IN Series, screened with the original cast live October 30 and 31, 2021, at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St NW, Washington, DC. IN Series’ digital production of Boheme in the Heights will stream on-demand for free on INVISION (click here) beginning December 20, 2021.
BOHEME IN THE HEIGHTS
Director: Emma Ayala and Timothy Nelson
Rodolpho: Louis Riva
Mimi: Judy Yannini
Marcelo: Alex Alburqueque
Musetta: Melissa Wimbish
Schaunard: Carl DuPont
Coline: Jarrod Lee (video), Gustavo Ahualli (live performance)
Benoit / Alcindodro / Parpiñol: Peter Joshua Burroughs
Students, shoppers, street vendors, protestors, waiters, children: The Shenandoah University Chorus under the direction of Dr. Matthew Oltman
Additional chorus voices: Alex Alburqueque, Joseph Haughton, Elizabeth Mondragon, Cara Schaefer
Music Direction & Pianist: Carlos César Rodriguez
Translator: Mario Montenegro
Video Capture: Max Kuzmyak
Creative Producers: Corinne Hayes, Brian J. Shaw, Mauricio Pita
Stage Manager: Eileen Goodrich
Animators team: Emma Ayala, Kat Navarro, Ezra Pailer, Alexi Scheiber, John Martinez, Justyna Kurbiel, Kellee Roeder, Lindsey Ragen, Abi Fuentes
Compositing Team: Emma Ayala, Ali Everitt, Lindsey Ragen, Kaon Taylor, Jacob Maier
Student Animators Team: Olivia Messmer, Kaori Taylor, Ezekiel Hickman, Alicia Ureta, Jackson Bear, Naftali Beller, Alexus Blue, Gabrielle Jones Fields, Shaun Harvin, Abel Asres, LatearTaylor
Student Asset Team: Henry Portillo-Vasquez, Maggie Wilson, Kaishaun Hassan, Annabel Morley