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Bohemian Rhapsody: A Culture Luster’s First Night at the Opera

My grandmother was 23 when she experienced her first live opera. Penniless, gamine and disguised as student ushers (“All you needed was an ID card!”), she and her sister, my great-aunt Helen, batted their eyes into the San Francisco Opera’s 1948 rendition of "La Bohème."

“I couldn’t believe we were in the crowd with all of those minks and diamonds,” she recalled, dubious even now. “I remember seeing my arm reaching for a flute of champagne during the reception and thinking about how out of place it looked.”

Huddled together on the upper level of the opera house, she and Helen savored Mimi and Rodolfo’s first sparks, Musetta’s coquettish melodrama, and boys-club camaraderie between roommates.

But you, dear Culture Lust reader, probably already know the details of "La Bohème," so I won’t continue (if you don’t, well, that’s what the internet’s for). Prior to last night, however, I did not, and, just like my grandmother, I embarked on my first-ever trip to the opera at age 23.

I know. As a contributor to this blog, it’s my job to write about absolutely everything on stage in S.D. But, myself a penurious bohemian - er, undergrad - with time in short supply, I’d just never gotten around to it.

"Moulin Rouge!", "RENT", and plenty of other broke-in-Bohemia modern classics are based on Giacomo Puccini’s four-act libretto starring starving young artists in love - in Paris, of course. As someone who grew up with the Kidman/McGregor adaptation (yeah, yeah) on repeat, I was pretty thrilled to experience its source material (ETA: Moulin Rogue! director Baz Luhrmann later brought La Bohème to Broadway with great success).

I began my evening faced with a familiar conundrum: wardrobe. Surely people in Southern California don’t break out the “mink and diamonds” on a Tuesday night – do they? I settled, as I usually do, on fashion’s comfort food of choice: all black, plus stilettos, throwing in a chignon and some red lipstick, for effect (the effect? My boyfriend greeting me with “Hey, Robert Palmer Girl." Hey, I’ll take what I can get.)

After arriving at the Civic Center an hour early, we headed upstairs for some cocktails and people-watching pre-show. Because it seemed like a terribly opera-like, sophisticated drink, I ordered a Sidecar – only to abandon it after two sips upon realizing its actual alcohol-to-lime juice ratio. I wasn’t about to spoil my only opera experience with a case of the spins.

Besides the odd teenager/college kid tagging along for family opera night, the crowd was decidedly 40-plus, and we got a kick out of watching the interactions between couples and friends. Tucked into a corner table under the massive chandelier, commingling with the well-heeled, I felt a trickle of the social displacement my grandmother must have experienced 62 years ago.

Finally, the doors opened, the first call sounded, we found our seats and the show began.

As I mentioned above, I won’t go into detail on "La Bohème’s" plot, but it’s way more than just a love story. Priti Ghandi, who hilariously and expertly dress-swishes her way through the role of Musetta (ladies: don’t we all know a Musetta or two?) told These Days that "La Bohème" is a tale about friendship, and I’d have to agree. From the boisterous bromance between roommates to Marcello’s role as mediator between the distraught Mimi and Rodolfo, I found myself laughing out loud and nodding in agreement more often than being swept up in the romance.

It is, of course, an epic romance, and one that’ll no doubt have you crying onto your date’s coat (or dress) sleeve by its ill-fated end (me? Never.) Ellie Dehn and Piotr Beczala are riveting and totally believeable as Mimi and Rodolfo – you’re rooting for them, really, you are! If they can’t make it, no one can! – and there was nothing like the audience’s radio silence and grim anticipation during the show’s final act.

We finished the evening with a nightcap at Neighborhood, one of the few delicious restaurants still serving food past 10 P.M. downtown. The meal was mostly quiet, both of us still mentally wandering the streets of Paris.

“So, I’m the poem, and you’re the poet, right?” I asked the BF over truffle oil popcorn, stealing a line from Rodolfo.

“How about this,” he said. “I’m the bartender, and you’re the drink.”

I’d love to know Puccini’s take on modern romance, but after experiencing "La Bohème" firsthand, I think the classics are perhaps best left untouched.

The San Diego Opera's production of "La Bohème" will be at the San Diego Civic Center this Friday, February 5, and Sunday, February 7, only.

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