DETROIT ( Associated Press) — The man who staged Wagner in a parking garage and drove his audience into a stretch limo to watch opera while driving around Los Angeles is now turning his hand into a staple of repertory.
And, generally speaking, Yuval Sharon’s version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” will be like no other you’ve seen.
His production runs four acts backwards this weekend at the Detroit Opera. So Mimi dies near the beginning, and then returns to life for the rest of the opera, which ends on a high note (literally, a high C) as she and her new lover go on a Paris night together. Let’s go
“Putting the operas in reverse order,” Sharon said in an interview, “we really emphasize that of course they’re going to face death, despair, and betrayal, but it’s all worth it because There is a moment where we are fully alive and electrified by falling in love.”
Sharon, who became the company’s artistic director during the pandemic, has a history of unconventional approaches to opera. As a founder of the industry in Los Angeles, he staged new work on freeways, city streets and a train station. Once in Detroit, he offered an abridged version of Wagner’s “Götterdamerung”, which can be seen by onlookers driving slowly through a parking garage.
“Boehm” marks the company’s first live performance at the Detroit Opera House before COVID, and Sharon said it’s more important than ever to find ways to make opera relevant.
“We need to explore and sometimes explode our idea of what opera is so that it can have a future,” he said. “It seems like the right time to do an experiment like this. … a time where we are questioning everything about society and the role of art in our society.”
Not everyone was immediately convinced, including the production’s conductor Roberto Kalb.
“Like everyone else, I thought, why are we doing this upside down?” Kalb said. “I thought, you know, this might be some PR stunt.”
But hearing Sharon’s vision and working in rehearsals changed her perspective.
“In the original sequence you start from a point of such high entertainment and then descend into the inevitability of death,” he said. “Here, there’s a blow, there’s death, and then you realize what happened and you rise from the ashes.
“I’ve felt lighter as opposed to finishing rehearsals and feeling, ‘Oh, I love this piece but I’m in tears,'” he said.
The opera, which Sharon noted, has less than two hours of music, being performed without intermission. “It’s so short, and so fast, it’s gone in a second, like youth,” he said.
The visual changes will require no pause as the John Conklin-designed set ranges from minimalist to extreme: an elevated, revolving turntable, a wood-and-steel door frame, and an abstract painted backdrop.
To illustrate the transition between acts for audiences, Sharon enlists 87-year-old George Shirley, a Detroit resident and a legend in music, as the first black tenor to star at the Metropolitan Opera. He takes on the speaking role of a character named The Wanderer, who provides brief introductions to each act and occasionally comments on the action.
The production, which opens on April 2 with additional performances on April 6 and 10, is co-sponsored by the Boston Lyric Opera and Spoleto Festival USA and will also be part of Opera Philadelphia’s 2022–23 season.
Sharon said that “Boheme” seemed particularly ripe for radical reinterpretation due to its popularity. It is the most performed work in the history of the Metropolitan Opera, where it appears almost every season in a grand traditional Franco Zeffirelli production.
“You think ‘bohem’ is always ‘bohem,'” Sharon said. “I think it’s to its detriment because it feels routine in the way we think of a piece that’s so refreshing. You fall in love with it instantly, and yet that familiarity suffers from.”
Opera America president and CEO Mark Skorka – who said he “can’t wait to see” Sharon’s production – echoed that view.
“There is a danger that these great pieces will be taken lightly,” he said. “Oh, you sing along to them, you know how they go, how they end.
“Isn’t it wonderful to take a fresh look at it.”