- CBC Music: What makes Puccini’s La Bohème the world’s most popular opera?
La Bohème's plot holds no surprises for opera fans: young bohemians in 1840s Paris make art, make love and live as though every breath was their last — and alas, in one case, that turns out to be true. But even non-opera aficionados may find the tale familiar because its story and music have entered popular culture. Here are five pop creations that began with La Bohème.
Jonathan Larson’s 1994 musical is based directly on the opera, transplanting the setting to New York City where a group of poor young artists struggle in the Lower East Side. The sinister disease that spells an end to La Bohème’s Mimi (consumption) becomes HIV/AIDS in Rent. It’s not just the plot that’s similar, it’s also some of the music. Compare, for example Quando me’n vo (Musetta’s Waltz) from La Bohème, to the guitar solo (around 3:30) in Goodbye Love from Rent.
Don’t You Know
Musetta’s Waltz was also adapted for Bobby Worth’s 1959 R&B hit Don’t You Know, sung by Della Reese. It also wrings your heart, if in a string-laden, non-operatic (but still stirring) way. The song reached No. 2 on the U.S. pop charts and No. 1 on the U.S. R&B charts.
The Simpsons: The Homer of Seville
In The Homer of Seville episode of The Simpsons, when the director, founder and “standing ovation starter” of the Springfield Opera House hears Homer singing If Ever I Would Leave You (from the musical Camelot), he realizes Homer has a magnificent operatic voice. Though Homer can only sing while lying on his back, that’s no impediment and he takes on the role of Rodolfo in La Bohème (He also doesn't shy from giving advice to real-life opera star Placido Domingo).
Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge
In 2001, director Baz Luhrmann released a movie that people love to love (or hate): the frenetic Moulin Rouge. Its Bohemian artists in Paris took “Truth, beauty, freedom, love,'' as their rallying cry, and swung from chandeliers to a soundtrack that included Lady Marmalade and The Hills Are Alive from The Sound of Music. Central is a character named Satine (Mimi), who is loved by Christian (Rodolfo) and dies of tuberculosis (consumption).
But years before, there was Luhrmann’s 1990 Australian staging of La Bohème (which he set in the late 1950s). After the success of Moulin Rouge, Broadway staged his take on the opera classic and Luhrmann was enough of a mainstream figure that a scene even made it onto TV's Live with Regis and Kelly.
In something of an opera within an opera, Cher — beneath her crown of towering hair as the character Loretta in the movie Moonstruck — realizes that even though she is at a production of La Bohème with Ronny (Nick Cage), yes, she really is engaged to his brother. What to do? Get teary while Mimi’s heart breaks, too.
And if you needed one more bit of proof that La Bohème is on the popular culture radar, look to that surefire indicator: the condensed version. The McSweeney’s piece "The One-Minute, Non-Musical La Bohème for One or More Actors," by Meron Langsner, contains lines such as “We are the poets! We are the painters! We are the unemployed and very poor. But still, we are bohemian. (pause) La.”