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Who Knew? La Bohème

by Tom Reed, chorus

Last night we did another performance of La Bohème. It was my 91st performance of Puccini's beloved opera, which I first performed as a chorister in 1978. It's always referred to as Puccini's “beloved opera” - a fact which I have always accepted without question, as evidenced by packed houses and enthusiastic audiences. So imagine my shock after all these years to discover the sad truth!

The chorus has its big scene in the second act. (In our production, that's the second half of the first act.) We come bouncing onto the stage in front of the Café Momus as a frenetically happy crowd of street vendors, shoppers, merchants, prune hawkers, and the like. I personally play the part of an aging fruit vendor who gets attacked by a vicious pack of under-medicated children.

It's a lively, wild-paced scene that's relatively short - certainly when compared to, say, Wagner. It transitions seamlessly from outside the Café to inside the Café where someone named Musetta has a tizzy, some plates get broken, and pies get thrown. Then it transitions back outside the Café where there's a big, happy parade and the act ends with everybody in a really good mood.

During the intermission the choristers, still on adrenalin, tear off their costumes, baby-wipe their faces, and pop into their street clothes. Well, alright, there are a few depressed choristers who must still appear on stage at the beginning of the next act, but I'm not one of them. For the majority of us, all that remains is to sing the offstage chorus at the beginning of the next act, and then, ever so reluctantly, go home. As the next act begins, we gather offstage to sing the Trallerallès. That's:“Tral-le-ral-lè … ral-lè … ral-lè … Eva e Noè … Hopplà!” For those of you who don't speak Italian, that translates roughly as“Tra-le-ra-le … ra-le … ra-le … Eva e Noe … Hoppla!” Then we mob the stage door on our way to the parking lots.

But that's not it, as I found out last night while talking to one of the props guys backstage. Nooooo. Puccini didn't leave it there with everybody happy and having a good time. Apparently the opera goes on for quite a while after that. And in the end, guess what. The soprano dies!! I mean, she's just the sweetest thing with a slight cough, right? Well, it kills her!! So they were just using the chorus to set the audience up so they could shock the hell out of them at the end of the opera. All that energy…all that adrenalin…all those bruises…and the audience goes home depressed anyway!

I thought it was a happy show. I thought we were making people feel good. And there she is, just lying there dead! Do people really need this kind of thing? I mean, look at the way things are going in this country right now. Do people really need another downer?! Well, obviously they do ! I mean, they just keep flocking to the box office, don't they!? I suppose I'm just going to have to stay next time all the way to the bitter end and see just exactly what it is that makes audiences want to hop onto this emotional roller coaster of an opera again and again. Honestly, who knew?