The talking point last month was the Symphony Orchestra of India`s production of Puccini`s La Boheme. The first question was, “Why is SOI calling it La Boheme Revisted?” Opera buffs opined it was because the director was going to set the action in today`s times, and we would see bohemians of the 21st century. The second question was, “If it`s a modern version, would it still be set in the Latin Quarter of Paris, or would it be (horrors!) located in today`s Bombay?”
In the event, of course, the show was none of these things. The production was not only of La Boheme, it was faithful to the original. The Italian director Sax Nicosia, wasinnovative, but in a completely unexpected way. The most startling departure was moving the orchestra from its usual position in the pit on to the stage, so that instead of being not seen but heard, SOI was seen and heard! The conductor, the brilliant Carlo Rizzi, and the orchestra were at the back of the stage with the drama unfolding in front, so that conductor and musicians formed an unusual backdrop to the action.
Forgive me if you saw the performance because then you would already know all this. But the innovative approach of this production has so many profound implications, that all this bears some repetition. For example, there was the introduction of a tulle scrim, suspended from the stage ceiling in front of the singers and the orchestra. This acted as a transparent screen on which were projected videos, images and drawings, giving an ethereal and magical effect to the production. In management speak, these innovations maximise resources. In ordinary speak, wow!
In any opera, there are three elements that distinguish it from anything else we see on the stage. The first is, of course, the musical score, and no one writes the grand sweep of melody better than Puccini (unless it`s Verdi). The second element is obviously singing – and opera tests the limits of the human voice, its ability to hit the high notes, to move effortlessly across registers, to rise in volume above the orchestra without using amplification, and do so while preserving a pure quality of voice. It`s an arduous ask, but that`s what operatic singers train their God-given voices for years and years to achieve.
A third element of any grand opera are its lavish sets. I remember going to a production of Aida at Covent Garden years ago which had the most extravagant sets imaginable. They also had live horses walking across the stage. (Apparently, but this is based on hearsay, even elephants have been used in some productions!) The English National Opera, for example, is reported to have spent anywhere between Rupees 1.5 to 3 crore to mount a production! (This is a total cost, including singers’ fees, orchestra etc – top-line singers are also extra-ordinarily expensive). There`s another element which adds to the cost, the enormous size of the chorus required for operas by Puccini and Verdi. (Incidentally, Shostakovich`s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, staged by ENO, required a chorus of 210 people! Let alone the expense, think of the size of the stage and orchestra pit needed for something like this.
Opera`s requirements are truly staggering which is why staging them is virtually impossible in a country like ours, where the infrastructure and audience for a reasonably long run of a production simply do not exist. That`s the reason why this particular production of La Boheme Revisited is so very exciting. It keeps the absolutely essential elements of an opera (the music and singing), but dispenses with the chorus (hence the orchestra on the stage) and, most importantly, replaces the elaborate sets with an imaginative use of technology. Khushroo Suntook, Sax Nicosia and the rest of the team, take a bow!
Marat Bisangaliev, SOI`s Music Director, showed me a video of a concert in his native Kazakhstan where a hologram was used to effectively show two identical violinists at the two ends of a vast stage. 3-D technology is now ubiquitous, combine that with holographic images, transparent and opaque screens to project video films, and you could have a spectacular production of an opera without spending massive amounts of money. It`s a mouth-watering prospect, and one which can work in the immediate future.
By the way, there`s another element of opera which we can`t do much about. That`s the essential silliness of the stories: opera’s magnificent music requires heightened emotions, and this is generally achieved by using large doses of melodrama. Logic and operatic libretto are not the best of friends. For example in La Boheme, although the heroine Mimi is obviously dying, no one thinks of calling a doctor until it`s too late. But unless Mimi dies, where is the pathos? So, as the audience, you and I are best advised to leave our commonsense at the door and let the music and singing carry us away.