Why does Puccini’s la Bohème make me cry?

By February 25, 2016History, Music, Society

I think I’ve seen this opera five times, in Newtown in Sydney before there was a functioning opera house, once in London, twice at the Opera House and once in Kansas City. In that American performance  the conductor and director delayed the last gut-wrenching chord for what seemed like forever. Rodolfo finally turned around, and realised what everyone else on stage already knew, that Mimi had died. ‘Mimi!’ he almost screamed, and then the orchestra battered us with the chord. The tears from both my eyes jetted towards the neck of the lady in front. It happens every time I see the opera, though not as powerfully as on that occasion.

There is something incredible about any opera. Real people don’t sing to each other, and they simply don’t gather together on a stage and sing different words about different things, but do it in harmony. They just don’t — except in opera. Opera isn’t for everyone. I know that. But it works for me. Given the right singers, the right story, the right composer, the right sets and the right stagecraft, any decent opera will get me in, even if I know nothing much about it. We saw Korngold’s The Dead City a few years ago, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout. Yet it has only one real aria, ‘Marietta’s lament’, and I can barely pick that out on the piano.

A good opera gets me in. And Puccini is the last great master of the operas that get me in. I love all of his works. Why are they so successful? Part of it is the story. La Bohème is about kids in their late teens and early twenties discovering life, and his genius there is to remind all of us about what it was like when we were that age — the acute suffering and joy of young love, the anguish of having so much to do and no money to do it with, the hopes and dreams of what we might become, and the  mixture of confidence and fear with which we face each new challenge.

Puccini once said that his success came from putting ‘great sorrows in little souls.’ There is a lot in that quick assertion. Puccini did not discover verismo — the use in opera of themes and stories about ordinary people living ordinary, often tragic, lives — that was probably Mascagni, with his Cavalleria Rusticana, in 1890. But la Bohème appeared in Turin in 1896, not long afterwards, with an orchestra conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. Little people, the ordinary folk, feel as intensely as anyone else. Shakespeare put that thought into the mouth of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock says, about people of his race, not simply ‘the ordinary people’ — but it is the thought that counts —

I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?

Puccini’s great gift was to make us aware that we are all alike in these respects, and he does it with consummate skill as a composer. He picked up from Wagner the notion that the opera had to be ‘musical’ all the way through. No recitatives, no jumps from words to song. We call it ‘through-composed’, the unhelpful English translation of the German durchkomponiert. A better word might be ‘continuous’ — the music goes on in a stream, never returning to the same place. You aren’t really aware, either, that the music that underlies the action is made up of the elements of the arias. In fact, apart from the arias (he loved them, and wrote lots), when you are inside a Puccini opera you are hardly aware of the music anyway. It is doing its job supporting the storyline.

Puccini has come in for a lot of critical flak, the typical attack being that he wrote music that was too easy for the audiences to love, unlike Mozart or Beethoven who wrote ‘elevated’ operas (thought Beethoven thought that Mozart should never have written Cosi fan tutte, on the ground that its subject was immoral). I almost know what such critics have in mind, but think than they are dead wrong. Opera is a difficult medium, and Puccini, above all others, even Mozart, knew how to keep the audience enthralled. Perhaps the most acerbic dismissal came from two composers of real stature. Lord Harewood tells the story of a chat between Dmitri Shostakovitch and Benjamin Britten, that went something like this:

Shostakovich: ‘What do you think of Puccini?’

Britten: ‘I think his operas are dreadful.’

Shostakovich: ‘No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvellous operas but dreadful music!’

Since I greatly admire Shostakovitch, both as a man and as a composer, I am sorry that this was his view. Britten can look after himself. But in my view they are both wrong — or if you don’t like disagreement, there is no arguing about taste. Tosca, Madama Butterfly and la Bohème are in the world’s top ten operas in terms of the frequency of their staging. The reason is straightforward. They tell stories that grip the imagination, and are provided with astonishingly good music that is exactly right for the story. I asked my wife why she liked la Bohème, and she replied that she knew the plot and she knew the music, and she could fall into it again, with fondness for the opera and sadness for the characters. I think many others would say the same.

We saw the recent Australian Opera production in Sydney. Like everything OA does, the performance was excellent from start to finish and in every way. The fact that the Rodolfo was Korean didn’t matter in the least, for his voice, a liquid and sweet tenor, was just right for the part. And if Carlo Montanaro, the conductor, was more restrained in his timing of the last chord, it didn’t matter. My tears came just the same.

Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Thank you, thank you for a wonderful article, Don. I also love La Boheme – the music really talks to me, and I agree about your tears. I’m not really an opera “buff” but you’ve motivated me to become more familiar with other Puccini operas.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    I am not an opera buff, but I have come to appreciate the more famous arias – the Three Tenors helped here – and find Puccini’s arias the most moving of all. Some parts are just raw emotion expressed in great music. One Fine Day is almost a cliche these days, but I defy any listener to not feel great sympathy for Butterfly and anger towards Pinkerton The Cad.

    So I’m not surprised that as an opera buff you shed a few tears.

  • margaret says:

    I saw a performance of Madama Butterfly televised – I have not cried as much before or since and I’m glad I was not “at” the opera. Those tales of “heroes” in the theatre of war and the price paid by the women they leave behind are an anathema to me.
    I saw Miss Saigon in Melbourne and didn’t enjoy it at all, neither the music nor the tawdry tale and I now look back at South Pacific with new eyes on the romance between the lieutenant and the (very) young girl as male fantasy (not to say that fantasies portrayed in musicals did not occur in wartime).
    I do love Les Miserables and have seen it several times, one of the most enjoyable in Canberra.
    So as usual I am off on my own trajectory and opera for some, it seems to me, is an adventure of the feelings (setting aside musical appreciation) for many people who don’t allow themselves that ‘luxury’ in daily life.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Thanks Don, I’m posting a comment to let you know that I really appreciate your musings, even on topics I don’t relate to. Yo say – –

    “the acute suffering and joy of young love, the anguish of having so much to do and no money to do it with, the hopes and dreams of what we might become, and the mixture of confidence and fear with which we face each new challenge”.

    After 5 years at boarding school and a 4-year struggle through university (both in Australia without parents who were living in Hong Kong) I had no time for young love, hopes and dreams focussed only on persevering and succeeding, and with much more fear than confidence, I scraped through. Then the doors of heaven opened for me as, for the next 10 years as an exploration geologist I saw most of the very isolated and desolated parts of this beautiful country well before air-conditioned coaches with UV-resistant tinted windows ferried-in the hordes. I feel truly privileged and relate to Australian country music. There! I’m out of my closet! I’m a Slim Dusty fan! One question: are not most operas written in the language of their composers? German, Italian, Spanish? Do they hand out translations to follow story lines? Keep writing.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Many of the larger opera houses have translations projected on screens above the stage. This works fine if you’re a local; it’s a little more problematical if you’re an Australian watching an Italian opera in Germany.

  • Fay Thomson says:

    Touched by your article Don.

  • margaret says:

    Aert chose a nice paragraph and I like Fay’s comment. In relation to the suffering and joy of young love and the pain of homesickness on migration to another country I recommend the film Brooklyn – it’s simply beautiful.

    • Aert Driessen says:

      Thanks Margaret, I don’t see myself as having migrated here but bred and raised here, albeit not by my parents but other people of good will. When my father retired the family returned to Holland. I still thank them daily for their selfless courage for having sent me here. I’ll keep my eyes open for the film.

  • Barry Williams says:

    Don, you must be tougher than me if you have to wait for the very last scene for the tears to flow. The two arias and the duet ending Act 1 get me every time, even when I’m playing them on my phone. Which can be a problem if I’m driving at the time.

    Great article.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Barry,

      I do the same. It was the final chord i was waiting for, to see whether I would be just the same. I was. But the tears did start at the end of Act 1 too.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        Don, everyone has their own response to tearjerkers, but the crown goes to Traviata, which is the world’s most frequently performed opera. I have cried in the best performances and I have cried in the worst performances, and I have seen some stinkers. But he music overrides everything.
        One of my favourite memories: walking out at the first act interval, I heard one solicitous young man asking his date ” Did you understand what was going on?” Her response “Not really”.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    She’s right, if it was here first experience of opera. Getting to know what it’s all about is important. Yes, Traviata works for me, though I don’t cry in it, to my best memory

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Don, operas were not written for the intelligencia. They were written for the yobs (your ordinary boofhead). Violetta was a yob. Everyone understood that, and understands it to this day, which is why the opera is so popular.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Yes, operas were written for the general public, not highbrows. But intellectuals analyse everything, including opera!

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          Don, Boheme celebrates two yobs falling in love. In Traviata, Verdi paints the picture of a yob imprisoned by her conscience. That, I suspect, is part of its eternal appeal.

          • margaret says:

            Don’t you think the acronym yob is derogatory Bryan? After all, so called yobs no longer have the privilege to attend the operas upon which their travails are portrayed …

      • margaret says:

        Yob is a slang term for an uncouth or thuggish working-class person. The word derives from a back slang reading of the word “boy” (boy or boyo reversed becomes yob or – slightly modified – yobbo).”

        Definition borrowed from Wikipedia.

  • whyisitso says:

    I went to a U3A course on Thursday about changes to popular music is the 50s and 60s, which naturally somewhat emphasised rock and roll. Towards the end the speaker played what he said was his favourite performance of the era. It was Brindisi, aka Libiamo from the first act of La Traviata. It’s a great song (in waltz tempo), not for the snobs, but for people who just enjoy a great tune.

  • margaret says:

    Here we go – once again men attempt to hijack control – this time of emotions. Oh how amazing are they – that tears spurt from both their eyes at the terrible tragedy of lurv … Get a grip guys – we are fine whether or not you are chivalrous, we just want to be equal – face paint, pretty clothes and jewels, they’re our prerogative if we wish – try them instead of your uniform if you wish and allow us to not decorate – “we make them paint their face and dance” – John Lennon

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Margaret, you’ll never get it because you don’t realise that Violetta got it.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        Margaret, I think it’s unarguable that in Traviata, Verdi painted a picture of a probably unsympathetic character, who was used, bullied and betrayed, and who knowingly participated in her own destruction. That is why the Act 2 finale is so moving. Mind you, i would not willingly shake hands with any of the men.

        • margaret says:

          It’s understood, I’m not a follower so I was just being ‘angry’ for no-one’s benefit really. Going a little stir crazy in between unpacking boxes and looking at nostalgic belongings that I think to myself wow if they were lost in a bushfire would that be devastating or liberating. Apropos of nothing : )

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