PHOTO CAPTION: Oriana Falla and Arnold Livingston Geis as Mimi and Rudy inLa Bohème: AKA “The Hipsters”. Photo by Martha Benedict

by Emily Dodi

A year ago, if someone had told me that I’d be watching an opera from my car (with my dog) in a church parking lot, I would have laughed and called them crazy. Well, here we are, and that’s just what happened. I am so happy that it did because it was wonderful, and I didn’t realize how much I needed it. Experiencing art with other people, even if we were all in our own cars, was beyond entertaining; it was healing.   

The production was the Pacific Opera Project’s (POP) La Bohème aka “The Hipsters”, which playfully tweaks Giacomo Puccini’s beloved opera. Instead of bohemian Paris circa 1830, the setting is hipster Highland Park circa COVID. The wonderful Oriana Falla and Arnold Livingston Geis play Puccini’s doomed lovers, Mimi and Rodolfo (call him Rudy), who live among a group of gig workers. Their existence is rife with love, jealousy, loss and pain — the stuff of all great opera, and then some. As POP explains, “this year’s production will be extra interesting as the tragedy of the pandemic is woven into the staging, but don’t worry, there will still be plenty of laughs to go along with a few tears.”

POP delivered on their promise with a 19th century opera that felt modern and relevant. Part of that was due to the lively performances of the gifted young cast (Ben Lowe, Maria Dominique Lopez, E. Scott Levin, Keith Colclough and Luvi Avendano) and accompaniment by a single piano, beautifully played by music director Parisa Zaeri. The modern settings helped, too, from Rudy’s eclectic loft to a trendy bar, brought to life by director and designer Josh Shaw, as well as the aptly over-the-top costumes by Maggie Green. English supertitles took cheeky liberties with Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s original Italian libretto. Strangely enough, however, the thing that felt most current was Puccini’s original work. Perhaps it’s because the power of his music transcends time. Maybe it’s because Mimi’s story, that of a beautiful soul succumbing to a terrible, mysterious illness, cuts us to the quick right now. Whatever the reason, the audience may have been socially distanced, but we were one. 

It was no easy feat for the critically acclaimed, LA-based POP to bring opera to the stage in 2020, but it was something they felt they had to do. 

“People say they want opera that is relevant – that it can and should speak to current events,” Shaw said. “Here we are in the midst of the most life-changing event any of us have ever experienced in our lifetime. … Well, here’s a chance to make some opera about what is happening right now. Yes, it might be extra painful, but I think it will also be extra uplifting, extra humorous, extra cathartic – and I know for myself and many others on both sides of the curtain, it is extra needed right now.”

 The 2020 season is over, but whatever 2021 holds, POP will bring us together through opera, wherever we are.