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San Diego Opera Stages Drive-In 'La Bohème' This Weekend

Edward Wilensky
Socially distanced "La Bohème" as San Diego Opera returns to live performances with a drive in production.

Innovative production addresses COVID safety measures for singers,audience

Live opera is back but with a twist. San Diego Opera will be staging "La Bohème" in the parking lot of Pechanga Arena San Diego next week. Here's what you can expect.

UPDATED, Oct. 23, 2020


Honk if you love opera takes on a whole new meaning as San Diego Opera unveiled its very first drive in production earlier this week for a preview night crowd. Honking and flashing headlights replaced applause and bravos on Wednesday night during a full dress rehearsal of "La Bohème."

COVID-19 halted live opera earlier this year. It is slowly returning but with challenging onstage protocols in place for crew, singers and musicians.

Conductor Rafael Payare pointed out that "For the orchestra string player [distance] is six feet. And for wood wind and brass is actually 12 feet. For me as a conductor it's also 12 feet between me and the next musicians."

Payare, the music director at San Diego Symphony, is making his masked and socially distanced debut with San Diego Opera and loving it.

"First of all, of course, opera is so dramatic," Payare enthused. "You get involved in this world and you feel and you cry and you get overjoyed for everything, but especially since you know what is happening in the world, we have been deprived for this so just the fact that we're being able to do it is going to bring a lot of excitement."

San Diego Opera Offers Drive-In 'La Bohème'

Payare let slip something of a spoiler when he revealed a new plot twist that is "perhaps too on the nose with Mimi dying of COVID."

Too on the nose but also a clever way to address all the changes required for an opera to go live in a pandemic. But many of the forced changes are leading to artistic choices that allow us to see "La Bohème" with new eyes.

"There is something about really honing in on these intimate moments between characters that I think is going to allow both of us as performers and the creative team, and the audience to take a deeper look at each of these people as their story’s told," explained director Keturah Stickann.

Edward Wilensky
Soprano Andrea Carroll sings the role of Musetta in drive-in production of "La Bohème" for San Diego Opera.

Soprano Andrea Carroll sings the role of Musetta. She said opera is all about big emotions but this reimagined "a Bohème" has found a way around close contact on stage.

"You might think, oh my goodness, it is a love story, how will you manage? But the way that it's being structured is that the story is being told as a memory. The main protagonist is Rodolfo and we are hearing the story through essentially flashbacks from Rodolfo's mind," Carroll said.

"So we're setting it in [Rodolfo's] study 10 years after the death of Mimi," Stickann said. "He's writing these stories and because of the nature of memory, which I love, I love this moment that you can dive so deeply into a memory and hear everything and smell things and feel things, but you can't actually touch what happened. It doesn't exist anymore. And so I'm allowing these people who came through his life to appear and disappear as memory, as fragments, as the memories, sort, of course, through him. But he's in his study reliving this."

San Diego Opera Stages Drive-In 'La Bohème' This Weekend
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

The experience will definitely be different but only in some ways.

"The story will be the same, just a little bit shorter. The voices will be the same. And I don't think any magic will be lost," Carroll stated.

Stickann added that it’s an adventure.

"An absolute adventure, she said. "So I think the energy and excitement and courageousness that's going to be in the atmosphere there is going to seep into the car."

So honk if you love opera.

San Diego Opera
San Diego Opera began building its outdoor stage in the Pechaga Arena San Diego parking lot its drive-in production of "La Bohème."


Live opera is back but with a twist. San Diego Opera will be staging "La Bohème" in the parking lot of Pechanga Arena San Diego next week. Here's what you can expect.

This pandemic is forcing arts organizations to get creative to find ways to perform and to actually create something that can generate revenue.

San Diego Opera Stages Drive-In ‘La Bohème’
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

Taking its cue from a number of successful drive-in events in Europe and the United States, San Diego Opera has decided to build an outdoor stage at the Pechanga Arena parking lot and do a re-imagined version of Puccini's "Bohème."

Director Keturah Stickann has plenty of experience doing opera outdoors but this will be her first drive-in opera.

"I'm so happy for the innovation and their creativity," Stickann said of working once again with San Diego Opera. "I know there have been a couple of other companies around the world right now who've been experimenting a little bit with drive-in opera. And it feels really exciting to be one of those maybe three companies. But also I think every time you watch a show from a different perspective, it changes the way you see the show. And what I'm really excited about is just what the storytelling feels like in this in this type of venue."

But the big challenge for Stickann and the whole company is COVID and the onstage protocols that are required during this pandemic.

"One of the biggest ones being that each singer needs 120 square feet of their own wherever they are on stage, meaning that they cannot be any closer than 15 feet from the person that they are singing toward and no closer than four feet on either side," Stickann explained. "So that challenge changed the entire way that I had to think about the piece that I was putting together."

Some of the changes include no chorus (it was logistically too difficult to fit that many people on stage with the distancing requirements) and a streamlined opera that will likely run less than 90 minutes (to eliminate the need for an intermission).

There will be four drive-in performances: Oct. 24, 27, 30 and Nov. 1.

Information from San Diego Opera's website states: "For this event, guests will remain in their cars for the duration of the performance. The opera will be transmitted to car stereos via FM radio and large screens will show simulcasts of the singers on stage. Masks and social distancing protocols will be enforced when patrons briefly leave their cars to use the restroom."

There is also a FAQ page on their website.