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La Bohème can lay claim to be the world's most popular opera.
"In many ways this is a work for which we have been preparing for many years" - Isango Ensemble
The epic tragedy La Bohème is contained and enhanced by the ordinariness of its story. The striking and brutal realities of the everyday life of the poor- their struggle for food, shelter and of course medicine is contained within some of the most glorious operatic music ever composed. Mimi's death from TB - and her illness unnoticed at first even by her closest friends - cannot but sound a chilling chord in our modern world. More than 100 years after the opera was first performed how many Mimis are dying everyday through exactly the same lack of access to a decent life and medical help? Puccini's message is clear and unambiguous: her death is a crime, a crime committed because of our lack of a collective humanity.
The first performance of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème was in Turin on 1 February 1896 at the Teatro Regio. Since then it has become one of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the world. This is not just because of the sublime music; the opera’s story of rebellious youth and doomed love resonates for different generations and across cultures. The original libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa is set in Paris sometime around 1830 and is loosely based on a novel: Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger and its adaptation as a stage play. It takes place in the bohemian demi monde of Monmartre and The Latin Quarter where struggling artists, writers and musicians are scratching a living through their art and their wits on the margins of society. Although they are poor, the characters in the opera have a vivacity and a lust for life that transcends their situation. They live for and in the moment. They fall passionately and desperately in love, quarrel savagely and part; then, unable to resist each other, they spring back together. When they have money they spend it recklessly on having a good time instead of paying the rent, hoping that something else will come up sooner or later. These bohemians defy convention and polite society; they are oppositional and they are young. With the naïve arrogance of youth they think they will live forever. But one of them will not. A shadow creeps over the opera: tuberculosis. It is this that gives La Bohème its tragic dimension and its particular resonance in contemporary South Africa.
As with all of Isango's work, all of the nature and heart of the original is kept intact, but the whole work is seen through a South African prism. The townships where the performers are drawn from are amongst some of the world's highest infection areas for TB and indeed, in the company's extended families and friends many are living with the realities of this disease on a daily basis. So for Isango, La Bohème is not a glittering piece of musical history but a searing emotional cry for understanding and action.
Isango Ensemble. Cape Town 2012
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