POP brings us the hippest Bohemians in town

By Bryan Dahl, Guest Reviewer

Why do hipsters always burn their mouths when they eat?  Because they have to chew their food before it’s cool…right?

Before you go see Pacific Opera Projects (POP) production of La bohème, forget what you think you know about both hipsters and opera.

Ryan Thorn,  James Callon, Robert Norman, Keith Colclough and E. Scott Levin. Pacific Opera Project.
Ryan Thorn, James Callon, Robert Norman, Keith Colclough and E. Scott Levin. Photo courtesy of Pacific Opera Project.

Picture an intimate crowd of about two hundred people, passing around bottles of wine and plates of hors d’ouevres, settled into a tiny,
candlelit theater.  The lights come up on an eclectic bachelor pad decorated with everything from Princeton banners to posters of Scottish terriers, and the first two of the night’s hipsters keeping their colorful apartment warm by burning a screenplay in a tiny barbecue pit.

Within five minutes, two things about POP become very certain: No, going to the opera does not have to mean crystal chandeliers and $300 seats; and Yes, going to the opera means being told a story by people who can sing like the gods.  James Callon and Ryan Thorn are incredible together, both in singing and in antics. Daria Somers’s voice soars as an irresistible Mimi, all the more so in her hipster glasses and striped knee socks. And Katherine Giaquinto, as Musetta, all but hijacks the show as she sprawls across the piano for her stellar rendition of “Quando me’n vo’.”

James Callon, Rodolfo and Daria Somers, Mimi. Pacific Opera Project.
James Callon, Rodolfo and Daria Somers, Mimi. Photo courtesy of Pacific Opera Project.

Kudos to Robert Norman for his hysterical portrayals of Benoit, Alcindoro, and Mexican street vendor, Parpignol.  Selling horchata was definitely not in the original libretto, but Norman makes the moment one of the audience’s favorites.

The intermission chatter is suddenly interrupted as E. Scott Levin and Keith Colclough come teetering, drunk, through the audience.  By the time they crawl up on stage and collapse, the audience is in stitches.

By the third act, something else becomes apparent.  The show and its cast are hilarious, top-notch performers. But more importantly, they manage to maintain a tremendous and endearing warmth through each scene. Perhaps the most genuine quality of the original novel and its libretto exist in the tangible, visceral relationships created between the friends and couples, and that being said, the fact that rehearsals spanned only a week before opening night speaks volumes for what chemistry and subtleties this show possesses.  With Stephen Karr at the piano, such iconic moments as “Che gelida manina” evoke an intimacy that would be difficult if not impossible to reproduce in a larger venue.

Katherine Giaquinto as Musetta sings "Quando m'en vo." Pacific Opera Project.
Katherine Giaquinto as Musetta sings “Quando m’en vo.” Photo courtesy of Pacific Opera Project.

What’s more endearing is that this quaint little triumph comes just a few months after POP’s relatively massive production of Tosca, which moved an audience and 22-piece orchestra through a different venue for each act of the opera. Following the company’s track record, it becomes apparent that director Josh Shaw is capable of just about anything, and here he’s choosing to follow up his grandiose, convention-shattering concept for Tosca with… hipsters.  The quirky clothes, the drunken, irreverent antics- the characters on stage feel so real and close to the audience.  In combination with Shaw’s transplanting of the story and libretto directly into the same Highland Park neighborhood housing the tiny theater, the audience can’t help but feel connected to every aspect of the production.  The strategy works.  The jokes never fall flat.  The audience is rolling in laughter, then suddenly holding back tears, from beginning to end.

Looking around after the final bows, it also strikes me that an audience this mixed is extremely hard to find.  Young faces are so rarely a part of the opera demographic, but POP is rapidly changing that.  While some of the biggest ‘A’ Houses in the country struggle to keep their doors open, this company continues to gain momentum.

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