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San Diego Opera’s ‘La Bohème’ Serves Up A Tasty Take On Puccini’s Opera

Behind the scenes look at the detailed production design

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes at San Diego Opera's "La Bohème" to whet your appetite about the detail-oriented production.


Food is being served at San Diego Opera’s latest production of "La Bohème" (opening Saturday at the Civic Theatre). But this food is being served on stage.

Realism and opera might not be terms you commonly place side by side. We tend to define things that are operatic as extravagantly theatrical and overly dramatic. But the latest production of "La Bohème" goes for what director Isabella Bywater calls “filmically real.”

"It’s on stage of course and meant to be on stage but it is a filmic style real and anything that is visible I want it to be absolutely accurate," Bywater said.

Which is why she’s standing by a table filled with plates of real food.

"It’s all the props department preparing for our production of 'La Bohème' that opens on Saturday, and we have a lot of real food in the café [scene]," she added. "There's key lime pie, apple pie, there’s chicken pot pie, turkey, pastrami, salami, cheese plates, crackers…" p

Property master Terry McCambridge helps oversee all the real food that needs to be prepped and loaded on stage before the opera even starts.

"We use apple jelly and applesauce to simulate oysters. Coffee, we serve coffee too, we’re a full service café," he said.

Giacomo Puccini’s opera about tragic young love set against Paris’ Bohemian art scene has almost an entire act set in a café. Food is served, dishes clank, and people sing as they eat. For Bywater it’s important that the food is real.

"Because you can see people eating and if it’s not real then they aren’t eating and we don’t believe them," Bywater said. "And it helps when they clear the plates, they are empty if they have real food. You notice that."

Okay maybe not the folks in the back rows but a lot of people will see the food. In fact there are panes of glass angled over the cafe that allow the audience to see the table from above and feel like they’re in a bustling Paris café. It helps the performers too, Bywater said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

For the cafe scene, there are panes of glass angled over the cafe so that it reflects what's on the tables and allows the audience a view of the food being served as well a glimpse of the cobblestone texture on the stage floor. All this brings a level of realism to the current San Diego Opera production of "La Bohème."

"It makes it much more convincing for them," Bywater said of the singers. "It makes it easier for them to play it truthfully and that gives an energy to the scene that would not be there otherwise."

Bywater’s eye for detail may stem from when she first saw the opera in Covent Garden. She was annoyed by an unrealistic set depicting a studio for a struggling artist.

"I thought that the studio was ridiculously large and unconvincingly grand and I promised myself never to make a studio large and people who see this will see that the studio is not large," she stated.

In fact it’s quite cramped and cluttered with props that make it feel more real. Outside the studio, the set features roughly textured walls and a cobblestone street surface. These details excited Kay O’Neil, an audio describer who provides descriptions of the opera to the visually impaired.

"Wow this is so marvelous," she exclaimed as she examined the window for the cafe. "Look at the curtains. Oh the bread looks fabulous!"

The opera is usually set in the 1830s but Bywater has it play out in the 1930s and drew inspiration from French photographers of that time.

"Particularly Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai, and really it was very interesting because these photographers took pictures of ordinary people, poor people, slums, underworld people who were living at what we would otherwise describe as a Bohemian life," Bywater explained.

The production design has the look of a black and white photo.

"It certainly is monochromatic," O’Neil said as she walked through the set rubbing her arms as if to warm herself. "All that grayness gives you that cold feeling."

Which works well in the chilly scenes of winter. For the other seasons, lighting warms the set, which rotates to reveal different parts of the Paris street and to slice open the artists’ studio to provide a window to their lives. The 1930s setting may make the story more accessible to a modern audience but Bywater insists that the story is universal because human behavior doesn’t change — and Puccini’s music conveys that to the audience.

"He’s very good at writing emotions very clearly and the libretto in this particular opera is fantastic," Bywater said. "The story is very good, and I hope [the audience members] go away having had a wonderful evening and I hope they will have cried."

Crying has always been on the menu for "La Bohème" but audiences may find their appetites whetted in new ways with the offerings of this production.

"La Bohème" opens Saturday and continues at the Civic Theatre through Feb. 1.


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