Guest Blog: Roger Paterson On OPERA UNDONE: LA BOHEME
Modernising opera is vitally important. We need to conserve and protect such a precious art form so as to not let it fade away and die. If opera is going to attract new audiences, it needs to be an accurate reflection of contemporary society in order to be understandable and relevant.
This does create many challenges for directors and music directors, because treading the balance between respecting the original music and narrative, and making the necessary tough decisions and changes that will attract a contemporary audience, is incredibly difficult.
The traditional setting of La bohème is wonderfully powerful and has its place in history. However, it is not accessible to many people in our current society due to the language barrier and incomprehension of what life was like in the 1800s.
By changing Mimi into a male character and creating a gay love story using the English language, Opera Undone brings this work into 2020. It also educates certain more conservative sections of our society that it's normal for same-sex couples to live their lives openly and happily. I believe that theatre, and indeed opera, are used now more than ever as a medium for expressing and challenging current economic, social and professional issues.
Introducing the theme of drug abuse and addiction into this version of La bohème brings this narrative thoroughly into the contemporary and draws attention to certain lifestyle choices one can make, regardless of sexuality. Drug-related mortality is a complex phenomenon, which accounts for a considerable percentage of deaths amongst young people in the UK and Europe.
In Puccini's original La bohème, Mimi dies of tuberculosis, which was a common illness in 1895 but is far less prevalent today. The drug focused on in this production is GHB, which stands for gamma hydroxybutyrate. It is a metabolite that functions as a depressant to the central nervous system, meaning it functions as a relaxant. It has numerous slang names, including G, Gina, and Liquid Ecstasy.
It is a very potent drug; one drop too many mixed with water can lead to extremely adverse effects, even death. This is the tragic eventuality that Opera Undone has incorporated into La bohème.
From the perspective of a singer, playing the role of Mimi has its challenges because a woman's voice can soar on a melody a little more easily, which Puccini had in mind when composing. However, I commit to the challenge of singing this role as a man and in no way do I attempt to express the melodies as woman's voice would.
Considering that I am doing my best to portray a drug addict, I can bring an edge, anxiety, distress and excitability to the way in which this role is sung, giving it a further unique, standout quality for this radical reimagining.
In such an intimate venue as Trafalgar Studios, you cannot fool the audience with a fake performance. The entire emotional range and demeanour of a character has to be believable. This, to me, is a huge challenge. If you get caught up in the singing, the acting will then suffer - and vice versa.
There is a very fine line between drawing an audience into the story and keeping them there with you, and distracting them with gesticulations and fake noises which - even in a huge theatre - are unbelievable and, at times, laughable. I believe that intimacy is hard to develop on stage, but necessary. It definitely improves the quality of your singing technique, as well as helping you connect the audience to the story you're telling.
Photo credit: Ali Wright