Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 10, 2023

Opera: One of the finest art forms you might not have experienced…yet

Preview: Berkshire Opera Festival, “La Boheme”
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
August 26, 29, Sept. 1, 2023 
by Shera Cohen

At the age of four or five, I was introduced to my first opera, “La Boheme”. In retrospect, I now realize and believe that I actually heard this music from the womb. Thanks, Mom.

The word “opera” and my mother were synonymous in our home, as it was in the home of her own youth. Each Saturday in the fall and winter, beginning at approximately 1:00pm, Live at the Metropolitan Opera was broadcast. Mom’s parents owned a radio in a large piece of furniture in the living room where she and her two sisters turned the world out to listen intensely to nearly every opera; particularly Puccini, then perhaps Verdi, and even the very long Wagner operas.

Growing up in the 1950’s, more or less by osmosis I heard and felt the music on a weekly basis whether I wanted to or not. At first, I thought it was boring, then it seemed somewhat okay but long, then I singled out some individual arias while ignoring the recitative chatter between the characters.

I actually do remember a major life episode when I was kindergarten age or less. The scene was our small beach in CT. Forever the theatre-person, Mom reminded me of the death scene in “Madama Butterfly” which I presented solo, singing my gibberish, with a pretend sword, ultimately falling onto the sand. The audience? Anyone within hearing distance. 

One of the joys of my life, hopefully for Mom, was a birthday gift of a limo trip for Mom, my aunt, a favorite cousin, and me to the Met in New York City to see “La Boheme”. Mom’s hearing was diminishing by age 90, so I wondered if she actually heard the vocalists. Our seats were quite good, but she often closed her eyes. I later asked if she could see alright. Mom smiled and said that the story, sounds, and setting were so overwhelming that she sometimes closed her eyes to feel the experience.

I recently told some friends that I was excited to attend Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of “La Boheme” in August 2023. The responses were friendly, yet with the connotation as if to ask, “Why?” 

For me, “why” is never a word to be used in the same sentence with opera, Puccini, and/or “La Boheme”. I assume that “why” meant: why sit for three hours in a theatre, why listen when the words are in a foreign language, why spend the money, why go to a theatre that might not have the best acoustics, why listen to singers who aren’t on the stage at the Met?

The stories and plots were rather similar. I can safely say without spoilers that: boy meets girls, mostly everyone is working class or poor, a few big-wigs look pompous, a character or two provide comic relief, one person is somewhat of a soothsayer, something is amiss between boy and girl, girl gets sick (cough! cough!) and dies.

Verdi, Mozart, and others tend to follow this theme. Admittedly, Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” is atypical, set in the United States Wild West. It is one of my least favorite of any opera. 

Why opera has been at the center of my core, especially this year and especially Puccini’s best? While “Madama Butterfly,” of course by Puccini, is my personal favorite, the music sung by the lovers Mimi and Rudolfo in “La Boehme” is exquisite. In an excellent production, the audience can feel the love between these two strangers.

But all is not doom and gloom, Rudolfo’s friends living together in a ramshackle garret in France, are boys at heart. Puccini’s music and repartee among the lads is light and fun. The secondary couple, Musetta and Marcello can oftentimes upstage the primary lovers. Musetta and beau are well-rounded characters who face the reality of their poor existence solemnly with an aside that there is hope for their own lives and that of their friends.

To many, “La Boheme” is the greatest opera ever written. Puccini’s masterpiece is, likely the first opera that novices hear; a wonderful “starter opera” with a poignant and understandable story, memorable music, intricate set, large cast including a lovely children’s chorus.

Of equal importance for the uninitiated is the Italian language; the Romance lauguages are among the most flowing and beautiful in the world. “But I don’t understand Italian.” Not an excuse for experiencing the glory of this opera. Trust me, you will “get” the story without knowing the meaning of every word. The artistic director, music conductor, and vocalists impart Puccini’s text in every note.

My somewhat educated take on opera as a genre spanning several centuries is that “La Boehme” is the template for all Puccini operas, not to mention those used by other opera composers of Puccini’s ilk.

Opera is a story set to the most beautiful music of centuries of genius composers. Yes, it is similar to musicals with near-perfect settings and sound, but opera is more…beautiful, orchestral, touching, with music that reaches every pore of your being. My mother, who passed away at age 99, just a few years ago, would agree. In fact, we played “Nessum Dorma” (another Puccini, from “Turandot”) at her funeral.

I urge you to give opera a try. What better way than to attend “La Boehme” by the Berkshire Opera Festival and Chorus?