Boston Lyric Opera’s version of La Bohèmerelocates the famous opera from mid-19th-century Paris to the Paris of May 1968. The geographical location remains the same: the Latin Quarter neighborhood, which preserves much of the original bohemian spirit with students, artists, and vagabonds of all sorts hanging out at cafés, making art, and debating matters of life and existence into the wee hours of the night. The zeitgeist of bothépoques is also comparable.
The plot of La Bohème takes place in December 1830, just a few months after the French Revolution of 1830 (also known as the July Revolution), and two years before the June Rebellion of 1832. The Second French Revolution of 1830 (Trois Glorieuses – Three Glorious Days), saw the overthrow of the King Charles X and led to the establishment of constitutional monarchy. Immortalized in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, the June Rebellion (or Paris Uprising of 1832), was a follow-up to the 1830 events. The young artists, students, and expats actively participated in both uprisings. (The story goes that 1832 violence was triggered by a young painter, Michel Geoffroy, who started the uprising by waving the red flag.) The two rebellions were sparked by poor living conditions and general malaise that afflicted France between 1827 and 1832. Overcrowding and food shortages made the atmosphere in Paris particularly volatile.
The spirit of May 1968 events very much parallels that of the 1830s revolutions. 1968 was a turbulent moment in French history; student protests against the bourgeois and technocratic values of the newly emerging capitalist society channeled the youthful idealism of these new bohemians. As in the original La Bohème, May 1968 in Paris was rife with tension between the romantic ideals of the artists and indifference of the world in which they were forced to function. Like the 1830s revolutions, May 1968 was a rebellion against what the students perceived to be unjust social order.
In staging our production, we drew inspiration from the mid-20th-century German theatre director Bertolt Brecht, whose dramatic theory of distanciation, including the use of placards, signs, and asides, aims to reveal new and unexpected meaning within preexisting text. By distancing La Bohème from its traditional, classic depiction and focusing on the everyday life of French students, we showcase the universal appeal of Puccini’s love story and the transcendental, potent force of youth, driven by passion, desire, and idealism. Revolting against the old culture, old values, and old traditions, the French students of the May 1968 revolution tried to change the world. They wanted to burn down the institutions of the old world order, and perhaps nothing symbolized that order better than the Paris Opera House. Thus, in our production, the Paris Opera House represents both the old order and, ironically, the new foundation of the students’ rebellion.
Our production also references Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 movie, The Dreamers, which chronicles the sexual entanglement of Matthew, an American college student visiting Paris during the 1968 revolts. He moves in with a pair of twins, brother and sister, and for a brief period the threesome live an idyllic and sexually liberated life, only to eventually part ways, leaving Matthew disillusioned and disturbed. In our version of La Bohème, we replace the bohemians’ garret with an abandoned apartment, ready for demolition. The toll gate at the Barrière d’Enfer becomes the makeshift revolutionary barricade that the students have assembled from everyday objects. Painted in steely gray, this barricade is somewhat surreal: both a dreamscape and perhaps a nightmare. Amidst this backdrop of witty, inspiring, and often self-contradictory political slogans, Mimì and Rodolfo’s love story unravels to the heartbeat of the revolution. Mimì becomes a symbol of both the passion and the frailty of the brief, violent insurgence that was perhaps doomed from the very start.Aesthetically, our production calls upon French New Wave cinema, particularly the movies of Jean-Luc Godard, whose loose, non-linear, and ironic storytelling style, which blends multiple narratives and viewpoints, acutely reveals the ideological contradictions of the French protests. The post-war period in France was characterized by rapid economic developments and, in many ways, the students who protested the newly emerging technocratic and capitalist social model were also very much part of it. As the children of the well-off French middle class, they grew up in relative affluence before rebelling against the boring, bourgeois lifestyle of their parents. After the revolution, they all went back to school and to their predetermined, middle-class futures. This revolution was but a brief flirtation with the freedom of an alternative, poverty-stricken, and romanticized artistic life, which many of them knew they would never be forced to live. In this world, Mimì is an outsider. She is not a college student. She works for a living, and she has no middle class life to fall back on after the revolution. She is drawn to Rodolfo because, among other things, he rejects the privilege of his birth, and he is drawn to her because she represents the authenticity of the class struggle, which he is lacking. In one of Godard’s most renowned movies, Masculin Féminin, the film’s most famous chapter is entitled, “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” This oxymoronic statement encompasses precisely the contradiction of the French revolution of 1968: the children of this revolution wanted simultaneously to overturn the capitalist society and live in its comforts.