Spectacular new set design makes IU Opera Theater's "La Bohème" a feast for the senses
Audiences have come to expect superlative productions from Indiana University Opera Theater and will experience Giacomo Puccini's classic La Bohème like never before when they attend its all new production, which continues this weekend in the Musical Arts Center on the IU Bloomington campus. A cutting-edge set by IU Jacobs School of Music master designer C. David Higgins recreates the streets of 19th-century Paris on three towering, intricately detailed, rotating stages, offering audiences an awe-inspiring visual experience equaled only by the beauty of the opera itself.
The unique technical capabilities of the stage allow for the immense scale of the set pieces, which would be too vast for any other U.S. stage aside from New York's Metropolitan Opera. Multistory buildings with soaring chimneys give way to a festival of light along an ornate bridge, a café and surrounding square bursting with holiday merriment and a scale model of the Orleans gate into the city.
Setting the opera in the 1890s instead of the 1830s allowed returning guest stage director Tito Capobianco to draw on the spectacle of electric light, which at that time was a cause for celebration in itself. Capobianco said he chose to maximize the visual impact of the stage in order to appeal to modern audiences who are accustomed to the sensory onslaught of film production.
"We're presenting a dynamic for a contemporary audience," he said. "The grandeur of the set is designed to serve the purpose of the opera by creating an ambience that offers a fitting frame to the emotion projected by Puccini."
La Bohème tells the story of a group of young Parisians who, despite their financial distress, seek artistic expression, laughter and love. Mimi is a seamstress living in the same building as Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a poet. On Christmas Eve, Mimi's candle goes out, and she seeks a light from Rodolfo. Thus starts this beautiful and moving love story filled with moments of abundant joy, good humor and great tenderness.
"If you're tired of La Bohème, you're tired of love," Capobianco said.
Distinguished conductor and IU professor David Effron will conduct the opera, with sopranos Jung Nan Yoon and Joanna Ruszala leading two rotating casts as Mimi. The Jacobs School student performers support the story brilliantly, Capobianco said, not only because of their talent but because their youth and enthusiasm naturally reflects the spontaneity and joi de vivre of the characters.
"To hear these young people singing La Bohème, you have a natural element that allows the impulsive, free-thinking, in some ways very innocent outlook of the characters to come through authentically," he said.
The details of the set further support this authenticity, with chimneys that smoke, windows individually lit in each of the many buildings and even the posters tacked to the walls drawn from actual advertisements displayed during the era. In Act II, which takes place at the Café Momus and the surrounding square, there will be nearly 90 people on stage in Higgins' new and exquisite costumes, evoking the setting in a manner never before seen in opera.
"It's going to be a sight to behold," Higgins said. "You're not going to see a Bohème like this anywhere else. It well represents the tradition of the IU Jacobs School of Music and its productions."
State-of-the-art lighting capabilities will also lend a cinematic extravagance to the production. Brooklyn-based guest lighting designer Barry Steele has paired nearly 600 lighting instruments with video projection techniques that transform Higgins' original paintings of the city into shifting panoramic backgrounds reflecting the changing light of day. During scene shifts, as the stages revolve and expose both interior and exterior spaces, the background projection will pan in the opposite direction, creating the sensation of spinning and soaring over Paris.
"When we do the scene shifts, it will be like a camera flying above and panning across the city," Steele said.
He will also use light to further convey the eclectic cultural spectacle of the crowd scene in Act II. "The stagecraft will be a reflection of the music and the story. Just as the scene portrays all types of humanity colliding, I try to do that with many types of light," he said.
To assemble the set, the costumes and the lighting technology, production manager Jim Lile estimates that more than 65 people have been involved in the physical creation of this production of La Bohème. Nearly every detail of the stage was made from scratch, necessitating almost nine months of construction. Because the set will become part of the IU Opera Theater's lasting repertoire, each element was designed for durability as well as visual impact.
"I had to focus on engineering how it all goes together and comes apart," Higgins said. "We hope to use the set at least four or five more times in the future."
Performances will take place on Nov. 16 and 17 at 8 p.m.
IU Opera Theater is unparalleled worldwide as a collegiate opera program, producing seven fully staged operas annually on one of the nation's biggest stages. This new version of La Bohème is one of the largest and most sophisticated collegiate productions ever.
For more information about La Bohème and IU Opera Theater, visit http://www.music.indiana.edu/opera.
Tickets are on sale now at the Musical Arts Center Box Office (for information, call 812-855-7433), open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; at all Ticketmaster outlets; by phone through Ticketmaster at 812-333-9955; and online at http://music.indiana.edu/opera.