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Buckle Up For Some Opera, Kids

San Diego Opera's

Credit: Karli Cadel

Above: San Diego Opera's "La Bohème," presented in a new drive-in adaptation, is pictured on October 24, 2020. Performances run through November 1.

Opera is a messy art as far as a pandemic is concerned — packed stages and audiences, a pit full of musicians, and all the droplets produced by those sustained high notes — so it seemed like it might be a while before opera would come back.

COVID-19 has taken an unfathomable toll on the performing arts industry, and it's uncertain when things will return to any sort of pre-pandemic function. After arts orgs — locally and across the globe — staged successful drive-in concerts throughout the summer, it seemed that the drive-in model might be our best guess for a temporary normal.

So when the folks at San Diego Opera announced drive-in performances of a special adaptation of "La Bohème," I was curious.

The San Diego Opera also claimed in their announcement that "La Bohème" is considered a "perfect first time opera." My kids are 11 and 13, and with the pandemic's impact on the babysitter situation, we thought: why not? Mostly, we were all sort of cabin-feverish. So last Saturday night, we loaded up the car with snacks, pillows, blankets, devices (in case of emergency boredom) and even the binoculars ("opera glasses") and headed to Pechanga Arena for the opera.

We could see brake lights lining up outside the sports arena from the highway. It felt exciting and like we were part of a thing, an event! Until we parked behind a compact SUV — small enough to not be exiled to the wings but just tall enough to block my line of sight. It became like a puzzle to try to see through their windshield too, or look around it.

The good news, though, is that the action and supertitles were also projected onto large screens peppered throughout the parking lot. The bright poster-style set design was eye-catching even from far away.

There was no amplified sound outside, which rewarded you for staying inside the car. And the sound in the car was pretty impressive. The San Diego Symphony, performing just next to the stage in an open-sided tent, sounded full and lush and we could just make out a silhouetted Rafael Payare conducting through the tent. Puccini's music is dynamic and striking, and is entertaining whether you're giving it undivided attention or having it as background music to the relative chaos of kids stuck in a car for 90 minutes.

With just seven total singers in the pared-down story, the voices were clear and full. It even felt like some of the emotion and humor in the story — scoffs and flourishes — were better served intimately through mics directly to our personal speakers than having to carry through a full concert hall. And yes, we honked after each aria.

Photo credit: Karli Cadel

Ana María Martínez is the cold-handed Mimì in San Diego Opera's drive-in production of "La Bohème" on October 24, 2020. Performances run through November 1.

The story was somewhat approachable, though I wish I'd known more in advance. In this adaptation, Rodolfo (Joshua Guerrero) spends much of the plot vacillating between writing and daydreaming, summoning memories — it's a device that helps keep the actors distant. Knowing this, my kids enjoyed tracking the social distancing on stage.

The story hits on scenes in their starving artist Parisian lives: the Christmas party where Rodolfo and Mimì (Ana María Martínez) meet, gatherings and chance meetings of the group of friends (many of them former sweethearts) in taverns and cafes, and there's a lot about the illness-stricken Mimì being cold. The opera builds towards Mimì's death, though in this flashback adaptation, it's assumed Rodolfo begins the story already heartbroken, reflecting on the past.

My daughter especially liked when Musetta (Andrea Carroll in her San Diego Opera debut) offered to go buy the sickly Mimì a muff when she kept complaining her hands were too cold.

Timely: there's a whole song about how Rodolfo breaks up with Mimì to prevent her cough from getting worse on account of his poverty.

We paid attention off and on, ate dinner, tried out each other's seats, and my son discovered some particularly good Pokémon in range. My kids could complain or we could try to explain things at regular volume without disturbing any of the other audience members. We even checked the World Series scores.

When the dashboard clock struck 9 p.m. and our tragic heroes on stage were still singing, my daughter said — kind of outraged — "Hey, wasn't this supposed to be over by 9?" I told her to hang on, because surely Mimì was about to die. My daughter gasped and said, "But the other lady is buying her a muff!" and I felt instantly proud. Somehow, my kids didn't just endure an opera, they were moved by it.

It's doubtful that we can stick just any sort of art on a drive-in stage and expect success, but for now, with our options sorely limited and this production making something beautiful out of a parking lot, it's something.

Two more performances of San Diego Opera's drive-in adaptation of "La Bohème" take place Friday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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