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If Wagner's "Ring Cycle" is the operatic equivalent of Heidegger, Bjork or Richard Hugo, then Puccini's "La Boheme" is Springsteen. It's Banksy. It's Woody Guthrie. It's for anyone who's ever felt temptation when passing a neon payday loan sign, anyone who's carefully rationed her prescribed medication to delay yet another costly co-pay, anyone who's ever purchased a gallon or two of gas to push through until the paycheck clears.
This Friday and Sunday at Pulaski Technical College's Center for the Humanities and Arts, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra will collaborate with Little Rock's sole opera company, Opera in the Rock, to present Giacomo Puccini's masterpiece for the 99 percent, fully staged and sung in Italian with English supertitles.
Although Arkansas history is decorated with opera stars who have launched international careers for themselves in one niche or another — Mary Lewis, Robert McFerrin Sr. (father of Bobby McFerrin, of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" fame), Marjorie Lawrence and, more recently, Barbara Hendricks, Sarah Caldwell, Bonnie Montgomery and Kristin Lewis — Little Rock itself has never had a longstanding love affair with the medium, at least not one that was financially tenable. Operagoers here tend to sate themselves with their George Solti recordings at home, by visiting the Met simulcasts at Breckenridge Village movie theater, or by indulging in the occasional trip to Eureka Springs' Opera in the Ozarks (a training ground for burgeoning singers) or to such far-flung places as Tulsa, Dallas or Memphis. As a result, promising singers tend to drift elsewhere, where the musical landscape is lush enough to support them, and the whole cycle is perpetuated.
Recognizing an abundance of talent here, Arkansas Symphony conductor Philip Mann and Opera in the Rock artistic director Arlene Biebesheimer sought to give performers a space to create this unique art form for the Central Arkansas audience they hoped would materialize. Materialize they did, in droves: Both evenings of the collaboration's inaugural production in January 2015 at the Albert Pike Masonic Temple were sold out. The two-night run of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," directed by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's Bob Hupp, used the stunning hand-painted backdrops and immaculately cared-for costumes furnished by the Freemasons themselves, and established momentum for a second project.
Unlike "The Magic Flute," though, there are no out-of-state ringers for "La Boheme." The cast is entirely made up of Arkansans (either natives or transplants from elsewhere), and lest that fact gives you even a sliver of doubt as to the level of talent involved, consult with anyone who heard the production's leading lady, Maria Fasciano-DiCarlo, sing Brahms' "Ein deutsches Requiem" with the symphony in February.
Though this is Fasciano-DiCarlo's first full performance as "La Boheme's" heroine, Mimi, the soprano is no stranger to Puccini. Her interpretation of Cio-Cio San in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" was heralded by the San Francisco Examiner as "most memorable ... utterly fearless," and those of us who have heard her gala performances with Opera in the Rock have collectively swooned over her magnificently controlled pianissimos and her glorious, soaring lyricism in arias like "I Want Magic" and "Un bel di."
Fasciano-DiCarlo will star opposite her husband, Vernon DiCarlo, whose warm, rich tenor held the lead in ASO/Opera in the Rock's "The Magic Flute." Asked about the onstage romance with her off-stage spouse, Fasciano-DiCarlo described the intensity of the moments between Mimi and her boyfriend, Rodolfo: "To have these intimate moments on stage with someone you have that real-life feeling about, someone you have an intimate connection with, it allows you to express these big, romantic things, like ... ." Flipping through her musical score, she finds a particularly devastating passage in the libretto that demonstrates her point, when Mimi, bedridden with tuberculosis, is reliving the first time she and Rodolfo met: "Are they gone? I was pretending to sleep so I could be alone with you. I have so many things that I want to say to you, or just one, but it's as big as the sea, as deep and infinite as the sea: You are my love and my whole life ... ."
Here's the thing about "La Boheme," though, despite being one of the most frequently performed operas ever written, some level of distaste for the work persists among opera highbrows. Perhaps it's fatigue, a variation on the reaction one feels when the opening riff of an otherwise phenomenal classic rock song peels out, having been drained of its ability to properly blow your mind (see: "Lonely Is the Night," "Stairway to Heaven.") Daniel Foltz-Morrison, who will sing in the production's chorus, describes the phenomenon of "regieoper," German for "director's opera," a word that describes directors, perhaps suffering from this very same ennui, going to extremes to reinterpret a classic work in an attempt to offer something new. He assures us we are in no danger of seeing, say, Musetta (Ekaterina Kotcherguina) as Madonna, or the chorus clad in spiked leather: "We're presenting this piece in a traditional way. The regie approach wants to combat the impression that opera is a static art, but we're not competing [with other opera companies] here, and sometimes it's easier to break the ice with some level of familiarity."
Perhaps, though, it has something to do with the seemingly timeless tension between the opera's lionhearts and the benefactors who so often foot the production bill. "La Boheme" poignantly romanticizes the starving artists who, in the opera's opening scenes, burn Rodolfo's manuscript to keep warm, and get the landlord drunk enough to distract him from the rent payment he came to collect. (If any of this sounds familiar, it's because "La Boheme" was the inspiration for Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Rent.")
Foltz-Morrison describes the central tragedy of the opera in language that sounds painfully contemporary: "The story is relevant: insufficient access to health care for impoverished populations. I mean, Mimi is dying of a treatable disease, and it's not a coincidence that she's low-income." Fasciano-DiCarlo calls it "a very human piece. These are all relatable characters, and these are things we've all experienced, when your rent is due, you don't have a whole hell of a lot, but you're trying to make your way in a difficult economic climate."
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 13, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at Pulaski Tech's CHARTS, 3000 Scenic Drive in North Little Rock. "La Boheme" is directed by David Malis (director of opera, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville), conducted by ASO's Maestro Philip Mann on Friday and by ASO Associate Conductor Geoffrey Robson (also serving as assistant musical director and chorus master) on Sunday. In addition to the DiCarlos, the cast includes Ekaterina Kotcherguina as Musetta, Benjamin Cox as Marcello, Matthew Carey as Coline, Ronald W. Jensen-McDaniel as Schaunard, Ferris Allen as Alcindoro, Mathew Lyon as Benoit, Matthew Tatus as Parpignol, a chorus of 16 singers and a children's chorus of 12.