Still from CU Opera production of La Boheme. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Author: Adam Goldstein

Eklund Opera’s “La Bohème” featuring alum Wei Wu offers a fresh take on Puccini’s “quintessential opera”

Giacomo Puccini didn’t go to the well of Greek and Roman myths when he wrote “La Bohème” in the 1890s.

Instead, the Italian composer turned his focus to the world around him as he crafted the story and music for the opera, a work that would turn into one of the most popular and enduring pieces in the history of the art form. Puccini looked to the social, cultural and artistic conditions in his own time when he crafted the tale of bohemian artists struggling to live, love and survive in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

He set his story and his music in the midst of the tuberculosis scourge of the late 19th century, a time when the disease claimed untold numbers of victims on a daily basis. Puccini drew on a cultural setting where traditionalists were looking for any excuse to condemn the excesses and moral decay of contemporary society. This gritty, unvarnished setting was the foundation for a tale of love, religion and death that pulled no punches.

“‘La Bohème’ is the quintessential opera. It embodies what storytelling and music is about in this art form. It deals with real life,” said Nicholas Carthy, music director of the Eklund Opera Program at CU’s College of Music. Carthy will conduct the program’s upcoming production of “La Bohème,” set to run from Oct. 21 to 23 at Macky Auditorium. He pointed to the reasons that the opera is one of the few to show up again and again in the lineups of companies across the world, both academic and professional: “This opera awakens something in people. People can recognize it as part of life and part of human existence.”

All of these factors also make “La Bohème” the perfect production for an academic setting. The Eklund Opera’s upcoming production will offer students firsthand experience staging a piece that they’ll encounter again and again in the professional world. It will give them the chance to tackle a challenging score, work within lavish sets and wear luxurious costumes. This show will serve as a vital learning experience for any student hoping for a career in the world of opera.

“As a performer, you are likely to be rehired again and again and again for some of the roles in this piece. The more times you do it, the more depth you have in your art,” said Christie Conover, production assistant for the Eklund Opera Program who is coordinating the upcoming production, along with director Leigh Holman. Conover, a CU Boulder College of Music alum, performed in a different production of “La Bohème” when she was a graduate student.

Conover isn’t the only CU Boulder alum involved in this latest take on the opera. Bass Wei Wu graduated from the College of Music in 2013 and has an impressive professional career that included stints singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Santa Fe Opera and the Washington National Opera. He’s returning to his alma mater to reprise the role of Colline, a part he played while still a student.

“Wei, who’s originally from China, has stayed in the U.S. and built a fantastic career. He said he would drop everything to play this role,” Carthy said. “It’s wonderful, because he can give our current students advice, and they can see all of the good things that can happen to people graduating from the program.”

Wei’s enthusiasm is also a testament to the lasting power of this piece. For audiences and performers alike, “La Bohème” is a work that doesn’t grow stale, no matter how many times it’s performed or re-adapted.

“Coming back to this opera is like visiting an old friend and seeing out what they’ve been up to,” Conover said.

The Eklund Opera Program’s production of “La Bohème” runs Oct. 21 to 23 in Macky Auditorium.