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<i>La Boheme</i> Opera Finds New Audience on Broadway

One of the world's most beloved operas, La Boheme, is attracting a new generation of audiences, not at an opera house, but on a Broadway stage.

Director Baz Luhrman is following up his successful movie musical, Moulin Rouge, by taking another big risk, mounting a full opera on the Broadway stage.

Theatrical renditions of operas are not new to Broadway. One of Broadway's current long-running hits, Rent, is based on La Boheme. Another top box office draw is Elton John's pop music version of Aida.

But the Broadway production of La Boheme is the real thing, a full-scale opera with the libretto sung in Italian. It is shorter and snappier than Giacomo Puccini's original, with updated dialogue and a Parisian setting moved up half a century to the 1950s.

Charles Isherwood, theater critic for the entertainment magazine Variety, says Mr. Luhrmann's gamble has worked. "I think it has gotten a great reaction, both from critics and from audiences," said the critic. "I think Baz Luhrmann is definitely aiming this production at a mass audience. He has said that, and he has really succeeded in that so far. It has gotten a lot of positive reaction even from the classical music critic community, who you would expect to turn their nose up a bit."

The classic tale of starving young Bohemian lovers living in a garret has been called the "greatest love story ever sung," including such scenes as when David Miller, as the poet Rodolfo, woos the dying seamstress Mimi.

Because of the vocal demands of opera, the leading roles are played by three rotating casts. Director Luhrmann auditioned trained young opera singers around the world to chose the cast. Like most New York theater critics, Charles Isherwood saw the show three times - once with each cast.

"I think they are all pretty wonderful," admitted Mr. Isherwood. "They are all talented singers. He has not just gone out and looked for just the handsomest faces you could find. He scoured the world apparently for highly trained young singers who could play the parts.

"They are amplified, which is obviously very unusual in opera, and that is probably the most controversial part of the production, at least for classical music critics."

The young singers also contribute to a livelier and more physical opera than usual, climbing and jumping around the rooftop garret and dancing about the set. Mr. Luhrmann has also added touches of humor. The most visually arresting scene is also the most athletic, as the entire cast celebrates Christmas Eve at a Bohemian Parisian cafe.

Mr. Luhrmann based the Broadway show on a production he did in Australia at the Sydney Opera House a decade ago.

To make the opera more accessible to a wider audience, he has shortened it and used modern English, including slang, in the subtitles that translate the Italian libretto. But the opera is treated with respect, even reverence.

Charles Isherwood said the production is not particularly radical. "There are many opera houses right now that cast young attractive singers in these roles. Updating an opera to the 1950s is certainly nothing new on the opera stages. I think it is just the aesthetic brilliance with which he does it that is exciting," he said.

Most major theater critics have been downright ecstatic in their reviews of the show and tickets are selling briskly. But Variety critic Isherwood says he does not expect La Boheme's success to start an opera trend on Broadway.

"I think this is really a singular case. La Boheme is the perfect opera to be presented in this way because it is not terribly long. It does not have a lot of dull patches. The characters are very well drawn and they are very engaging, and the music is very accessible. You cannot really say that for a lot of operas," he said. "La Boheme is a masterpiece and it is a masterpiece of a particular kind. It is a wonderful story, beautifully told through very accessible music."

Mr. Luhrmann's signature trademark is the word "L'Amour," French for "love," which appears somewhere in all his productions, including his movies. On the Broadway stage "L'Amour" is spelled in dazzling lights on a rooftop, leaving no doubt that it is Baz Luhrmann, not the singers, who stars in La Boheme.