I‘m listening to two tenors – Philip Lee and Daniel Koek – sing a love duet. It’s O Soave Fanciulla from Puccini’s La Bohème, one of the most performed scenes in the opera repertoire, written for a male and a female voice. In our new English-language version, Rodolfo, a tenor role, meets Lucas, an online hook-up whose friends have given the nickname Mimi, and who is also sung by a tenor.
Having directed a much more conventional Bohème 30 years ago, I was concerned that casting two singers of the same voice type might flatten the colors and dynamics of the duet. But as we rehearse, Daniel’s Rodolfo becomes a confident, boastful figure prone to exaggeration and sentiment, while Phil’s Mimi is a tentative, uneasy presence who ultimately sees himself and the world with more mature eyes than his enthusiastic lover. I realize they actually have very different vocal qualities, which sharpens their distinctive spirits as characters. Two gay men singing some of the world’s most romantic music to each other brings out a vulnerability and honesty in Daniel and Phil as performers, while feeling like a comic transgression of the unwritten rules of opera.
At the end of the rehearsal, which takes place in a tiny room in the West End of London, I look at our website describing this production as a “queer reinvention” of Puccini and wonder, in the light of what’s happening in the rehearsal room , if that’s the right line to take. Phil and Daniel are playing the scene so naturally and easily. It’s a political statement of its own, I suppose, but not the aggressive challenge to heteronormativity that “queering Puccini” might suggest. I call the office and we reword the website.
I was 27 when I first directed La Bohème – for Opera East, a middle-scale touring company. It was my first job as an opera director and I prepared furiously, listening to recordings, reading biographies of Puccini and (never having learned to read music) going over and over the dots until I could follow the score. Once in the rehearsal room, I focused on my relationship with the singers – would they think in the same way as actors I was used to? – and with the conductor, sitting beside me with his baton in the air, a figure I’d never had to contend with as a director of new plays.
Returning to Puccini now, I see that my 27-year-old self had a lot in common with Rodolfo and Mimi and their bohemian cohort. Back then, I was writing an early unproduced play, fending off demands for late payment of rent in a very shabby flat. Only the year before, I had lost my partner to an Aids-related illness. Why didn’t I see the parallels with Puccini’s story? Too in awe, perhaps, of Bohème’s status as one of the world’s greatest operas, too concerned with understanding the technicalities of the music and the staging.
I realize that, just as I was directing my rather conventional opera, Jonathan Larson was at the New York Theater Workshop, developing his response to La Boheme: the musical Rent. In Puccini, Larson had found a model for a story of his own experience, in a way that I hadn’t. As rehearsals progressed at Opera East, I began to tire of the score: too sentimental, too manipulative for my Generation X sensibility.
Leaving Bohème behind, I turned my hand to writing a new play. A response I thought, at the time, to all that Puccinian sentimentality. But as I return to Mimi and Rodolfo, I see that that play – which proved to be my breakthrough piece, Shopping and Fucking – has all sorts of parallels with Bohème: a group of flatmates struggling to pay the bills; the arrival of a troubled but ultimately doomed newcomer; the hovering presence of the older man with money. Spending time rehearsing a piece – whether aa play or an opera – imprints its shape and motifs on your mind. No surprise then, if the ghosts of Bohème inhabit Shopping and Fucking, even if I was unaware of it as I wrote.
The text and arrangement for our new Bohème is written by Philip Lee, our Mimi, and our musical director, David Eaton. It reduces the piece to four central characters, one gay couple, one straight, as they navigate falling in and out of love and ultimately confronting mortality. Our early preview audiences laugh readily at the comic moments but, as the evening ends, there’s the sound of sobbing and when the house lights come up, I see that I’m surrounded by teary eyes. My own are distinctly moist. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the venue, perhaps I’ve mellowed with the passage of time. I still have a lingering suspicion that Puccini is sentimental and manipulative – but La Bohème now touches me deeply. I wait until the audience has left and sit alone in the theatre, sobbing.