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Tidings of Comfort and Joy: La Bohème's Message of Christmas SpiritThursday, December 13, 2012 By Christina Kucan, FWOpera PR/Communication Specialist
In preparing to pen a blog highlighting the link between Puccini's beloved masterpiece La Bohème and the Christmas holiday, I was seized with an overwhelming Sherlock Holmes-ian desire to uncover never-before explored facts about both the work and its composer, pouring over myriad books and Web sites in my quest. In my extraordinarily wild imagination, the connection between the opera and Christmas was too straight-forward. Surely there was more to it than Puccini simply setting the opening acts on Christmas Eve. Perhaps, Puccini hid an autobiographical component in the opera's opening act—after all his birthday falls two days before Christmas Eve. Maybe, veiled inside the first scene he incorporated a lesser-known holiday tradition or carol from his hometown of Lucca, Italy. Or on a more salacious note, perhaps he had experienced a kind of heart-warming, Grinch-link revelation prior to the opera's composition, leaving him with a particular affinity for the Yule-tide season.
Despite my best efforts and repeated attempts to unearth an obscure element that would leave opera fans and musicologists swooning, the reality is much more pure: Puccini recognized, as many of us have, that there is something inherently special about the Holidays. He must have perceived the subtle magic that quietly fills the air as the days grow shorter and colder, imbibing people with a genuine spirit of generosity and selflessness while also filling them with unbridled joy and optimism.
It is against this backdrop that we are first introduced to the work's primary characters—a rag-tag group of bohemians living in the artists slums of Paris' Latin Quarter in the 1830s—and from its earliest moments, the opera is punctuated with examples of the kind of unselfish sacrifice that have come to characterize the Holiday season. For those less familiar with the story's plot-line, I'll highlight a few for you:
As the curtain rises we meet Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter. In their dilapidated attic apartment, amid Paris's frigid winter wind, they struggle to keep warm. In an effort to remedy their frosty situation, Rodolfo offers up the pages of his manuscript as fuel to keep the fire alight—not a small sacrifice when one considers that his daily existence is dependent on the selling of his writings or accounts for the fact that paper was not inexpensive. Despite their less-than-favorable circumstances, the mood is jovial and light, particularly after Schaunard, a musician, arrives with food, fuel, and libations for the group. In this moment we are reminded again of the true spirit of the season. Although his salary is miniscule—the spoils of playing the violin for a rich Englishman's parrot—Schaunard generously provides what he can for the merriment of his friends. Scene after scene follow that illustrate the "Christmas spirit" at work among the characters. We watch as Rodolfo opens his home and eventually his heart to Mimì, witness the reconciliation and reunion of Marcello and his sweetheart Musetta, and observe the close-knit group of friends finding reasons to celebrate even in the poverty they find themselves. But perhaps the greatest acts of selflessness come at the end of the opera as Mimì lies dying of tuberculosis, and in an effort to save her, the friends sell their most prized possessions. Although their efforts ultimately prove futile the message of their actions is strong.
From this perspective, I can perhaps boast that I was correct in my initial hypothesis— although devoid of scandal or factual anecdote, there is more to La Bohème's Christmas Eve setting than meets the eye. It does more than place the work on a particular day during a specific season. Instead, Puccini ingeniously builds upon the notion of the "Christmas spirit," creating a framework that makes the opera's message of transcendent love and friendship in the face of insurmountable odds exceptionally more poignant. It is in this spirit of the season that we wish you a very Happy Holidays. We are grateful for the generosity of our many patrons and sponsors and hope that your New Year is filled with peace, joy, and great music.
--Christina Kucan, FWOpera PR/Communication Specialist