Bohemians return in 50th opera season

Those carefree bohemians are regular visitors to the San Diego Opera stage. This is their 11th arrival since the premier in 1965 as the first production of the new company.

The San Diego Opera Guild wanted to keep grand opera in the city after San Francisco Opera canceled its tours here after 15 years. “La Bohème” became our signature opera performed every five years.

Music critic Alan Kriegsman, writing in the San Diego Union, predicted that the San Diego Opera debut promised an exciting and auspicious future.

“No one expected it to be the ‘Bohème’ to end all ‘Bohèmes’… but it was certainly an enterprise in which everyone can take enormous pride,” he reported.

By coincidence, the first San Francisco Opera appearance here in 1952 was “La Bohème," starring Dorothy Kirsten and Jan Peerce, and conducted by Gaetano Merola, longtime director of the San Francisco Opera.

No wonder this work was destined to be San Diego Opera’s signature opera with such an auspicious start.

Now we have a new production from English National Opera featuring young American artists making their San Diego Opera debuts in the three leading roles.

San Diego Opera veteran resident conductor, Karen Keltner, will lead the San Diego Symphony musicians.

This traditional masterpiece by Giacomo Puccini premiered in Turin, Italy, in 1896 and was conducted by a young Arturo Toscanini.

Some 50 years later, he recorded a performance for NBC Radio, the only Puccini opera recorded by the original conductor. (There’s some trivia for your opera scrapbook.)

The 1896 premier was not a success. The critics branded the work as trivial and lacking the dramatic depth of Puccini’s first opera, “Manon Lescaut.”

But the public trumped the critics by making the opera a favorite, especially as an entry-level work for new opera fans and romantic young people.

The story begins with the gaiety and casual romances of four starving artists sharing a garret in the Paris Latin Quarter. Rodolfo the poet finds instant attraction to Mimi, a shy girl living next door, and whisks her off to join his rowdy buddies at the local café.

A secondary romance between Marcello the artist and the flirtatious Musetta livens up the Christmas Eve revelry as her gentleman escort gets stuck with the bill and her lover is in a jealous rage.

The fragile romances begin to unravel in the third act but rally when Mimi is comforted by her bohemian friends as she is dying -- a classic scenario for a sentimental opera drama full of beautiful music and emotion.

The libretto is based on a popular novel and later a play of the day, “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème” by Henri Murger. The shocking Parisian lifestyle of young artists, musicians and poets living a loose life in the Latin Quarter in the early 19th century was a popular subject and helped promote Paris as the place to be for creative art.

The previous 10 San Diego Opera productions of “La Bohème” brought opera-star quality to the San Diego stage. Most notable was the debut here of Luciano Pavarotti in 1980 when the company policy of opera in English was broken to attract the superstar.

Other San Diego Opera early-career performances were Patricia Racette as Mimi, paired with Richard Leech as Rodolfo in 1995 and tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo in 2010. They were heard here before becoming international superstars.

The new production opens Jan. 24 for four performances in the San Diego Civic Theatre. Singing Rodolfo is American tenor Harold Meers, following his debut at San Francisco Opera.

Alyson Cambridge appears as Mimi. The American soprano was a grand-prize winner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions and a graduate of the Met’s affiliated artist program.

Another American soprano, Sara Gartland, as Musetta, is paired with American baritone Morgan Smith, singing Marcello.

“La Bohème” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are 7 p.m. Jan. 24, 27 and 29; and 2 p.m. Feb. 1.

For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at the San Diego State University.

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