It’s a strange thing to experience the source material when you’re already a fan of the adaptation. Reading Hamlet after watching The Lion King, or The Wizard of Oz or Mary Poppins books after watching their respective movies can be really weird. So it was for me when I saw La bohème, the opera on which RENT was based, for the first time last week.
La bohème opens on Marcello and Rodolfo, a painter and a writer, freezing in their Paris flat. They burn some of Rodolfo’s plays to keep warm, but are saved when their friends Colline and Schaunard show up with food and cash. (Schaunard received this windfall as payment from an aristocratic patron, who, annoyed with a noisy pet parrot, had commissioned Schaunard to play the violin until it died.) Their landlord Benoît appears to collect the rent, but they ply him with wine and trick him into leaving without it.
Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard decide to head out to the cafe to celebrate their newfound bounty, but Rodolfo stays behind for a bit. He is distracted by a knock on the door—his neighbor Mimi, who needs a light because her candle has gone out. They get to talking (well, singing) and, in the way of theatre, fall in love rather quickly. They join Rodolfo’s friends at the cafe, where they also encounter Musetta. Musetta was formerly Marcello’s lover, but she has been recently courting a wealthy government official. Musetta has tired of him, though, and wants to return to Marcello after seeing him there; she sings to attract his attention, and then tricks her rich beau into paying for everyone’s meals while she leaves with Marcello.
Time passes, and both Marcello and Musetta and Mimi and Rodolfo are struggling in their relationships. Rodolfo at first claims that he’s upset with Mimi because she is flirtatious with other men, but it turns out that he’s really worried because she has become very sick of late, and he fears that he is not wealthy enough to provide her with adequate treatment. He thinks that if he drives her away—and into the arms of a more well-to-do suitor—that she might be able to get the medicine she needs. It turns out that their love is too strong to dismiss in that way, though; Mimi and Rodolfo decide to remain together at least until spring. (Musetta and Marcello have a similar fight, and end up breaking up.)
Months later, Mimi has also left Rodolfo, and he’s seen her about town with a wealthy lover. However, Musetta appears at Marcello and Rodolfo’s apartment one cold night with the news that’s she’s found Mimi, who has left her patron and is sick and on the edge of death. They pool their money for a doctor, but it’s too late. Mimi dies tragically in Rodolfo’s arms.
The production I saw, performed by the Pittsburgh Opera, was lovely. I’ve never been as big of a fan of opera as I have of Broadway-style musical theatre—I find the music harder to follow, and constantly needing to look up at the supertitle translations (if they’re singing in a language other than English) gives me a headache pretty quickly. However, this performance was wonderful, with stellar performances from all the singers and particularly gorgeous sets. Plus, although the story obviously stands well on its own, it was strangely amusing on a separate level to see how Jonathan Larson pulled the story of RENT out of it. For example, the words of the song Musetta sings in the cafe very closely resemble those of Maureen’s “Take Me or Leave Me”, but the tune is the theme Roger plays repetitively on his guitar. Although Colline and Schaunard (Collins and Angel) are lovers rather than friends in RENT, they still appear with a windfall of money and food after Schaunard musically assassinates an annoying pet. The shows have their differences, of course, but that’s what allows them to stand separately. RENT’s Mimi doesn’t die, but Angel does, and far more people are ill with the terminal illness du jour (AIDS rather than tuberculosis) in RENT than in La bohème. Marcello is a painter and in a relationship with Musetta, but Mark is a filmmaker whose girlfriend left him for another woman and who instead focuses his creative work on his late friend Angel.
One of the things I thought was interesting about La bohème itself was its attitude toward sex. On one hand, most of the conflict between people in relationships comes from the men accusing the women of being too flirtatious with other men. However, the women have just as much agency in starting and ending relationships as the men do. Even when Rodolfo tries to break it off with Mimi—for her own good, he believes—they instead talk it out like adults and decide to keep trying for a bit longer.
Another thing that I find refreshing about opera is that, in my experience, casting is based on talent above anything like race or size or appearance. In the operas I’ve seen, characters of color or characters who are fat are also regularly main characters or love interests, whereas in musical theatre physical appearance often pigeonholes performers to a specific type of character or role.
Opera will probably never be my favorite type of theatrical performance, but La bohème’s portrayal of poverty, struggling for art’s sake, sex, and gender dynamics are all still relevant to us today. Its messages have clearly stuck with people, or else creators like Jonathan Larson would not have considered them worth adapting into a modern setting. Even though following and understanding opera itself can be difficult at times, both the genre and La bohème have some interesting ideas from which the rest of theatre could definitely learn.