The Jacksonville Symphony gives a modern twist to “La Bohème”

We’re gearing up for one of the most exciting events of the Jacksonville Symphony season: our brand new production of Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece, “La Bohème.”

The opera tells the story of four artists – a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher – who live in Paris in the 1830s. Rodolfo, the poet, falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Mimì. We follow their romance through a season of joy, celebration and general lyrical drama as Puccini’s music bursts with color, ardor and psychological nuance.

The opera is also short, where it’s all said and done in about two hours. What could be more perfect?

Our award-winning Metropolitan Opera director Gregory Keller staged opera in New York City in the late 1970s. He describes those years of memory as the last truly bohemian period in American history. It’s the world of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Halston and Liza Minnelli. The hedonism and abandonment of the times fits perfectly into the narrative arc of the opera. The second act will take place at Studio 54, the legendary nightclub where A-list stars rubbed shoulders with drag performers and partygoers.

Putting on an opera is a totally different undertaking from a symphonic concert. Jacoby Symphony Hall has been transformed into an opera house, with a huge raised stage. Instead of moving sets, specially designed sets will be projected onto thirty-foot screens.

We welcome an extraordinary cast of international stars to sing the lead roles, and we’re joined by the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus, members of the University of North Florida Opera Department and the LaVilla School for the Arts Chorus. Several years of preparation have gone into what promises to be both a thrilling performance and a deeply moving lyrical experience.

We are currently in the middle of piano rehearsals where the singers, conductor and director are plotting the movements the singers will do on stage. We practice away from the concert hall in a room with the scene drawn with masking tape. A valiant pianist plays the entire orchestral score so well that the orchestra does not arrive until the last days of rehearsal.

Usually these rehearsals last for weeks, giving everyone time to absorb the instructions. However, the schedules of symphony orchestras are much tighter than those of opera houses, since we usually play a different concert program each week, so we cram all piano rehearsals over 10 days. It’s exhilarating to work under such pressure – everyone’s adrenaline is flowing and incredible results are achieved very quickly.

You have to travel hundreds of miles from Jacksonville to hear opera, so I’m thrilled and proud that opera is returning to the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. I challenge those of you who think opera is not your cup of tea to come and discover “La Bohème”. Its riveting drama, the equal of anything on Netflix, is sung by world-class professionals and performed by an orchestra that gets better every hour.

Those of you who love opera will enjoy thinking back to our production and hearing the piece in a new way, because Puccini doesn’t often get a modern makeover. We only have two performances: the evening of Friday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. and that of Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m. We look forward to sharing this true lyrical gem with you.

Courtney Lewis is conductor and music director of the Jacksonville Symphony.

Jacksonville Symphony

April 29-May 1: “La Bohème”

May 4: Jacksonville Youth Symphony Orchestra major/minor concert

May 6-7: Be happy! Judy Garland’s 100th

May 9: Jacksonville Youth Symphony Orchestra String Festival

May 13-14: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” in concert

May 20-21: L’Éclat de Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23

May 26: Pride Night: Mozart and Juliet

May 27: Mozart & Juliette café-concert

June 3-4: The Music of Queen

June 10: Beethoven’s Ninth: Ode to Joy

Tickets at jaxsymphony.org

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