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A Bohemian Tale Of Love and Loss In The Lyric's 'La Bohème'

When American soprano Katie VanKooten came down with a cold just before the final dress rehearsal of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's "La Bohème," it became clear that she was not going to be able to "sing out" in her role as Mimì.

But the show - or at least the rehearsal - went on.

Some 1,000 students from 11 area schools who attended listened as Van Kooten, as a precaution, gamely pantomimed her part. She is expected to take the stage for Saturday's performance.

Giacomo Puccini’s opera, "La Bohème," is based on Henri Murger's 1851 novel, "Scènes De La Vie De Bohème." The four-act opera premiered in 1896 in Turin, Italy.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City brings the tragic tale of struggling poets and artists to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Set in bohemian Paris, the opera traces the love of the young seamstress Mimì and Rodolfo, an impoverished poet.

Young bohemians in Paris

It's a chilly Christmas Eve in 1890, and three roommates Marcello, Colline and Rodolfo burn acts from Rodolfo’s latest play in a vain attempt to keep warm in a garret apartment. They joke as the pages burn but give off little warmth.

Their small party is interrupted by Schaunard, another roommate, who has had some success performing for an eccentric Englishman who has paid him to play the piano for his dying parrot. He brings food, firewood and wine and proposes to celebrate over dinner at a cafe in the Latin Quarter.

Landlord at the door

Their revelries are halted when a knock at the door reveals their landlord Benoit looking for rent. The young men entertain the elderly Benoit who brags about his marital infidelities. Without paying rent, they throw the old man out the door in mock horror. With the crisis averted, the four agree to depart for the cafe.

As his roommates prepare to leave, Rodolfo decides to stay behind to finish an article. Yet another knock on the door reveals Mimì, a beautiful young seamstress who lives nearby. Her candle has burned out and she asks Rodolfo for help.

Flirtation in the dark

Mimì is clearly unwell and she faints. Rodolfo helps her light her candle and she leaves, but returns looking for the key to her apartment. Wishing to delay her departure, Rodolfo pockets her key.

Suddenly, both candles are blown out and the two continue their search for the key together in the dark. In the confusion, their hands touch and Rodolfo sings to Mimì of the beauty of her eyes.

Mimì sings to Rodolfo of her own life sewing artificial flowers and gradually the two reveal their love for each other. 

An unwelcome admirer

Rodolfo and Mimì join their friends at the cafe, where Marcello has encountered his former beloved Musetta with Alcindoro, an elderly admirer. Marcello unsuccessfully tries to ignore Musetta. She makes a scene and declares her shoe too small and sends her older suitor away to repair her shoe.

When the bill arrives, Musetta slyly tells the waiter to give the bill to Alcindoro and the party departs.

Love denied

Months later, Mimì seeks out Marcello to beg him for help with Rodolfo, who has driven them apart with his jealous rages. As they speak, Marcello sees Rodolfo approach from a nearby tavern and he urges Mimì to hide.

Rodolfo complains of Mimì’s flirtations, but admits the real reason for their estrangement is Mimì’s illness, a condition that Rodolfo fears is fatal.

Together until spring

Mimì overhears Rodolfo’s prognosis and reveals her hiding place in fit of coughing and sobs. Rodolfo attempts to console her and the two agree to stay together until springtime.

Return to the garret

Several months pass. Rodolfo and Marcello are again in their garret apartment discussing their lost romances. Schaunard and Colline arrive with a little food and the friends happily sit down to their meager banquet. Musetta bursts in arriving with an emaciated Mimì who is too ill and exhausted to move.

Musetta tells Rodolfo that Mimì has left her suitor, wishing to return to Rodolfo, the man she truly loves. Musetta gives her earrings to Marcello so he can send for a doctor. Colline leaves to pawn a favorite coat.

After the roommates depart, Rodolfo and Mimì sing sweetly of the day they first met. Mimì tells Rodolfo she feels better, all the while getting weaker and coughing. Mimì drifts off to sleep and then dies. Schaunard sees that Mimì has stopped breathing. Rodolfo, sensing something is wrong, rushes to the bed and weeps.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents Giacomo Puccini’s 'La Bohème'  March 15, 17, 19, 21 and 23 at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. 

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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