Seattle Opera’s “La Bohème” is a Touching Spectacle for McCaw Hall’s Returning Audiences

Kang Wang (Rodolfo) and Keri Alkema (Mimì) star in Seattle Opera's "La Bohème." Photo by Sunny Martini

Before the curtains rose, they already glistened. As the largely AARP card-valid audience buzzed with excitement, I immediately felt out of place: as an opera virgin with an aversion to high art, I was unsure whether I would enjoy a supposed masterpiece in a form known for its formality. However, despite the libretto’s many flaws, Seattle Opera’s sensational vocalists and sweeping scenic design immersed me in the world of La Bohème, dazzling, delighting, and boring me along the way.

All seven principal performers were thoroughly impressive, though I found myself particularly enamored by Kang Wang’s (Rodolfo) soaring falsettone. While his co-star Keri Alkema’s (Mimì) voice was also strong, it didn’t modulate throughout the course of the show, resulting in her arc feeling underdeveloped. This incited my sour reaction to the ending, in which I (spoiler alert) anxiously awaited her death. Nonetheless, the relatively small ensemble filled the space with Giacomo Puccini’s score, a feat worth celebrating.

I was equally enchanted by the stunning scenery and cleverly integrated lighting—the two worked together to brilliantly recreate natural light via pseudo-windows within the set, producing a sense of depth I’ve seldom seen in theatre. Despite the sheer beauty of these visual elements, they detracted from the artistry and intimacy of the piece—no matter how gorgeous a stage picture is, theatricality should enhance the story or else it distracts from it.

The show follows four struggling artists (Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, Schaunard) as they navigate lovers (Mimì and Musetta), landlords (Benoît), and tuberculosis. The show’s overly sentimental tone didn’t feel authentic considering the characters’ circumstances. I’d argue this was due to the libretto’s focus on rushed romanticism—for instance, Rudolfo and Mimì meet and proclaim their love for one another in the same scene. Meanwhile, the repetitive nature of Puccini’s score was emotionally numbing, creating a disconnect between the characters and audience. If the show took more time with the plot but moved at a slightly faster pace emotionally, I believe it would’ve strengthened my engagement with the characters.

The Seattle Opera chorus walks among the …stunning scenery and cleverly integrated lighting.” Photo by Philip Newton.

As I navigated a sea of gray hair at intermission, I was curious as to why so many older consumers of art are drawn to a story about the struggles of young adults. I believe this is due to the show’s nostalgic value and absence of irreverence. Even as a teenager, watching the experiences of those younger than me in life and art returns me to a glamorized version of those times. In La Bohème, this is supported by a goofily innocent sense of humor.

However, the show’s exaggerated situational comedy reminded me of a cartoon, which I found peculiar considering the vastly different social contexts and conventions for the art forms—perhaps high and low art are more similar than we’d like to admit and one medium shouldn’t be viewed as more important than the other. Likewise, we should avoid the societal expectation that opera is solely for older or more sophisticated arts consumers—it is a medium that can be appreciated and enjoyed by all ages, so it should be treated as such.

While I believe Rent, a modern adaptation of the show, is a more energetic and relatable portrayal of love, loss, and the pursuit of a creative life, La Bohème’s innocent humor and focus on romanticism successfully presents the story with an undertone of warmth. It’s difficult to determine whether I enjoyed the piece or simply appreciated it, but it’s a spectacle to be reckoned with and a worthy experience nonetheless. In addition, the theme of losing loved ones is more relevant than ever as COVID-19 continues to take lives every day.

In school, we’re asked whether we’re passionate about science or the arts as if the two compete. However, before the show, the artists thanked scientists for helping performing arts return in-person via the COVID-19 vaccines. This demonstrates that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: science allows us to exist; art allows us to live.

La Bohème runs at McCaw Hall through October 30. Tickets are available for purchase online.

Kyle Gerstel is a 14-year-old theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. He’s currently directing an entirely youth-driven production of The Laramie Project and assistant directing a local production of Metamorphoses. When not writing articles for the TeenTix Newsroom, you can find him performing in Youth Theatre Northwest productions, writing comedy songs, or obsessing over Bo Burnham.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.