SALT LAKE CITY — Kathleen Clawson has a deep passion for opera, but she admits there are some operas she wouldn’t want to see a second time.
“La Boheme” isn’t one of them.
Clawson was just a seventh grader when she first got her hands on a recording of Giacomo Puccini’s Italian opera.
It was the first opera recording she ever owned, and it remains special to this day.
“I may not know where I parked my car, but I do know every word of ‘La Boheme,’” Clawson said. “I will see ‘Boheme’ anytime, anywhere, and it always grabs me. It always affects me. Look, I get teary just even talking about it.”
Utah Opera is beginning its 40th season the same way it started its inaugural one — with “La Boheme.” The upcoming production, which begins Oct. 7 at Capitol Theatre, will mark its seventh appearance on Utah Opera’s stage, and it is an opera Clawson, who is the stage director, and other members of the production team believe i an ideal stepping stone into the world of opera.
A simple plot
Even if you’ve never seen “La Boheme,” there’s a good chance the storyline, which is set in 19th-century Paris, will feel familiar as there are many references to it in popular culture.
Both the 1996 rock musical “Rent” and the 2001 film “Moulin Rouge” are loosely based on Puccini’s opera. A scene in the 1987 film “Moonstruck” even shows singer/actress Cher and Nicolas Cage becoming deeply moved and falling in love while listening to the opera’s sweeping, romantic music.
The simple plot of “La Boheme” also makes it a suitable first opera for newcomers, according to Clawson.
“I think some of the barriers to opera for some people are that they’re worried they’re not going to understand, or they’re worried that it’s going to be too hard,” she said. “I’d say there’s nothing hard about 'Boheme.'”
“La Boheme” centers on a group of young, struggling bohemians that navigate the ups and downs of life and love.
When the group goes out for Christmas Eve celebrations, the poet Rodolfo opts to stay behind in his tiny apartment so he can finish writing an article. While struggling to find inspiration, his next door neighbor Mimi pays him an unexpected visit.
Mimi, who enters coughing and fatigued, informs him that her candle has blown out and that she has no matches to relight it. Rodolfo comes to her aid and quickly starts to develop feelings for her. When Mimi turns to leave, she realizes she has lost her key — which Rodolfo finds and secretly tucks away in his pocket so he and Mimi can spend more time together. Although their meeting is brief, it’s enough time for both of them to realize they’ve fallen in love.
“(Rodolfo) is just your average bohemian, living in poverty, carefree, just going as the wind blows — until he finds love, true love,” said Scott Quinn, whose portrayal of Rodolfo marks his Utah Opera debut. “(He) sits down to write, and not inspired, (he) puts his pen down and then (Mimi) knocks on his door — that’s what was missing in his life!”
Over the next few months, Rodolfo’s jealousy, Mimi’s chronic illness and a general state of poverty put their relationship to the test, leading to a tragic ending for Rodolfo and his group of friends.
“But (‘La Boheme’) is not about sadness and loss as much as it is really about love,” Clawson said.
The music tells the story
In addition to a simple storyline, “La Boheme’s” dynamic music can also help steer opera newcomers in the right direction.
“The music — it’s got humor, it’s got drive (and) it’s got passion,” said guest conductor Robert Tweten. “I think when you study any great work, you can get an intellectual picture of it, but with a piece like (‘La Boheme’), the first time, you don’t have to study it — it just grabs you.”
Clawson added that Puccini’s music plays a role similar to film scores in modern society.
“The music really tells you everything you need to know,” she said. “If you’re watching a horror film or something, you start hearing the spooky music (and) you know something bad’s about to happen. The opera scores do the same thing. It’s user-friendly.”
But if those new to opera are looking for additional help, Clawson said there will be English supertitles displayed as the performers sing their Italian arias in order to provide a clearer picture of the story.
A relatable story
So why does Utah Opera continue to return to “La Boheme”? Much of this relates to the story’s down-to-earth characters.
“This isn’t an opera about kings and queens or mythical figures,” Tweten said, adding that in contrast to other operas, nothing is ever cut for length in a production of “La Boheme.”
“It’s just four guys in their house, like a bunch of college kids or artists, just goofing off and having a good time,” said soprano Jennifer Black, who makes her Utah Opera debut as Mimi. “And when do you get to see that in opera? It doesn’t take much to understand the story, and it’s relatable on so many different levels.”
Quinn can certainly relate to his character Rodolfo, the poet in his early 20s, as he was also that age when he found his first love while in college.
“That’s what makes it so easy to portray the character,” he said.“(‘La Boheme’) is just so relatable. You watch it and you think about some of your own life experiences, too.”
While ‘La Boheme’ is an opera standard, the cast hopes that newcomers will give it a chance and view it with an open mind.
“Though it’s a grand opera, it’s not grand,” Clawson said. “It’s real; it’s human. I believe that that’s the purpose of all art, is to help us understand our shared humanity. And I think maybe now more than ever that’s important. Maybe we can use 'La Boheme' as a way to find common ground. That’s asking a lot of Puccini, but he’s up to it.”
If you go
What: Utah Opera’s “La Boheme”
When: Oct. 7, 9, 11 and 13, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 15, 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $21-$103
Email: [email protected]