Puccini’s La Boheme

Last night I watched the second in the series of recordings of earlier live-streamed performances of New York Metropolitan Opera productions, this one being the 2008 staging of La Boheme about the lives of poor, young, romantic artists in Paris. Apparently the recent hit Broadway musical Rent was based on this opera. Although it was moving, I did not enjoy it quite as much as I did Carmen the previous day. One thing I noticed was that in this opera, the singers took curtain calls at the end of each act, rather than only at the end of the opera. I thought this odd but maybe it is not unusual for some operas. I had also been under the impression that the audience would shower the female leads with bouquets of flowers at the end but that did not happen in either of these two operas. Maybe that is an opera cliché that is no longer operative or maybe it happens in other countries and not the US.

On the plus side, this time they had subtitles, so I could follow the story better, though the subtitles gave up on the occasions when singers sang in harmony but with different words, as happens in operas. But on the minus side, the tone of this opera was more sad and melancholy. As with much of music, one’s appreciation increases with repeated listening and there was only one aria that was familiar to me, the one sung by Musetta in the Act II, unlike in Carmen where there were many rousing arias that have become so familiar to the general public as stand-alone songs. The mood in the two operas was very different because the title character in Carmen was a fiery, vivacious woman, with flashing eyes and a mischievous attitude who toyed with the many men who could not resist her while Mimi, the lead in La Boheme, was a wan and sickly figure.

The scale of this production was impressive. They had recreated Franco Zeffirelli’s original production of 1982 and it was on an epic scale. The sets were large and elaborate (there were 80 people involved in changing the sets between acts) so that the backstage area (which we were shown in the breaks between the acts) was huge, like another theater in itself. And although there were just six main characters, the total cast was enormous with well over a hundred people in the street scene in Act II. This included a large number of middle-school age children (as was also the case in Carmen) which made me wonder how they managed to stay up so late night after night and still get their school work done.

It must take the massive resources of organizations like the Met to mount such an elaborate production and I assume that tickets are expensive in order to cover the costs. That is unfortunate because it will deprive many people who love opera of the chance of experiencing live performances. On the other hand, their decision to stream these operas for free will provide many people with the chance to see them and it looks like people are taking advantage of the opportunity. Yesterday, I was put in a queue for six minutes before the streaming started and I expect the queuing time will get longer as the word gets around.

Now on to today’s streaming of the 2015 production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, unless the servers crash from the overload.


  1. cafebabe says

    Mano, the etiquette for opera audiences varies both over time and place. Unlike the case for other classical music forms it is considered OK to applaud after a particular aria, whereas for both symphonic and chamber music one is supposed to wait to the end to applaud.

    Back in the day (19th century maybe) it was usual if an opera audience applauded a particular aria very loudly the singer would sing the piece again. Hence the apocryphal story of the American tenor singing in the Milan Opera House. The audience applauded his aria and he repeated it. They applauded again and he repeated again. Finally, he addresses the audience and says “I very much appreciate your applause, but the rest of the opera must go on”. A voice from the audience calls out “No, you can keep on repeating it until you get it right”.

  2. Mano Singham says


    I can understand people applauding after a particular array and people did do that also in Carmen. I was talking about how after the curtain fell after Act I, the two leading singers Mimi and Rodolfo came out and took a bow. Is that common?

  3. consciousness razor says

    Back in the day (19th century maybe) it was usual if an opera audience applauded a particular aria very loudly the singer would sing the piece again.

    They would also boo, or generally act like a big drunken mob who barely any paid attention to that evening’s entertainment. This goes all the way back to the early days of opera (not to mention other forms of theatre) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The audiences were totally unruly by our standards, not what you might expect from the upper-crust image they’ve taken on now. (Like a Shakespearean play too, for example.)
    Very early on, it was mainly for the wealthy who were their patrons, as was the case for many other artforms. It had a very promising start: some very innovative work by people like Monteverdi (e.g., L’Orfeo in 1607), which got most of Europe very excited, except in Britain which remained a sort of backwater because of the resistance to (what was perceived as) indulgent Catholic tendencies. That of course was just a dumb excuse for propping up their monarchy, but anyway this was the official story.
    However, as wiki’s article notes:

    Opera did not remain confined to court audiences for long. In 1637, the idea of a “season” (often during the carnival) of publicly attended operas supported by ticket sales emerged in Venice.

    So, it became something for the general public, and it really didn’t take long to realize you could make a killing from selling those (relatively cheap) tickets to the masses. That meant it was a routine thing for normal folks, like going to the movies. But these are 17th century peasants we’re talking about, and they were mainly just interested in having a good time. It just wasn’t about living up to our standards of politeness, or engaging with it as artwork in the ways that we do today. The few works from back then which are still performed today (like L’Orfeo) were not just some background noise for all the shouting, drinking, gambling, fighting and whatnot.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Is that common?

    It really depends on the opera and the group doing it. In some stories, there are important characters (with a big aria) only in act 1, so they won’t have to wait until the very end, when it won’t be fresh on the audience’s mind anymore. But some will bring out the male/female leads whether or not that’s the case. I suppose the thinking may also be that you need to buy time in intermission for scenery changes and so forth, so why not?

  5. flex says

    From cafebaby, @2,

    whereas for both symphonic and chamber music one is supposed to wait to the end to applaud.

    Even this wasn’t always true. In the early days of modern classical music, say Mozart’s era, talking during a performance and applauding between movements was considered okay. As consciousness razor says above, these performances were mainly at courts, not in public. And secular music, not sacred.

    But even when classical music was presented in large public gatherings (at least that part of the public which could afford tickets), it was originally expected that the audiences would clap between movements, or even demand encores of a favorite movement. You can often hear the difference in how classical music was intended to be listened to in the music itself.

    For example, Beethoven wrote his symphonies with each movement being something you can listen to as a stand-alone piece of music. Even if there are connections between the movements, they are fairly weak. The same musical theme is not used in the fast movement as the slow movement. The composers wrote their symphonies like rock-and-roll bands do today. Something fast to get the blood moving and the dancers on the floor, then a slow song to get a little more romantic and rest a bit, then a rousing torch-song finale. It’s not a perfect simile.

    By the end of the nineteenth century composers were connecting the symphonic movements much more clearly, using similar musical themes between the movements. I think this is easiest to hear in Mahler’s symphonies, and it is clear that by the time Mahler was composing the convention had changed to paying attention to the work as a whole, not just as weakly connected movements.

    I find it interesting to make a similar comparison with rock-and-roll. Early rock albums are generally just a collection of songs. Each one stand-alone pieces of music. The The Beatles came out with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which can be listened to as a set of interconnected songs. (They may not have been the first, but it happened around that time period.) Which led to a lot of progressive rock writing complete albums which, while the songs do stand up by themselves, together they make a more powerful story. Like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or most of Alan Parson’s work. Now most, but not all, of the writers of rock-and-roll project albums had classical music exposure, if not training, so it shouldn’t be too surprising. But what does surprise people sometimes is how an album like The Eagles The Long Run can be seen as a complete story even if most of the songs on it were played on the radio as individual tracks. We don’t automatically put them in the right order in our minds, so we may not recognize that a story is being told.

    According to this article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_etiquette, it was really the start of the recording industry which completely killed the idea of applauding between the movements of a classical piece, or even the audience demanding a specific movement be played again.

  6. cafebabe says

    consciousness razor
    Booing and cheering, yes. I knew a guy who was a teenager in Naples after WW2. He got to see all the operas for free as he and his friends were given tickets and paid to attend by the agent of one of the sopranos of the local opera company. Their job was to applaud like crazy for the agent’s singer and boo and heckle the rival soprano. This arrangement was so common that there is even a word for it -- claque.

  7. flex says

    Doh! That’s cafebabe, not cafebaby. My sincerest apologies. I hate getting names incorrect.

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