Michael T. Regan
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Penned in 1896 before the onslaught of his more garish works, La Bohème is the finest of Giacomo Puccini's operas — a glorious, grueling Bohemian romance that peers into the workmanlike life of artists, poets and seamstresses of the 19th century. There's class struggle, poverty, love and grief to be found in Puccini's Paris streets and its lead characters, Rodolfo and Mimi.
Currently celebrating his 20th season at Temple, Douglas — former artistic director and conductor of the Merrimack Lyric Opera Co. of Lowell, Mass. — not only runs one of the most inventive collegiate opera programs in the country, he's also running the only one in Philly. And unlike other college companies, Temple Opera Theater at the Boyer College of Music and Dance involves students in all aspects of their two academic-year productions — from building sets to sewing costumes. While Temple's department of voice and opera includes professional voice teachers — renowned tenor Philip Cho and soprano/department chair Christine Anderson among them — the productions utilize supervised student-on-student coaching.
It's all part of the plan to prepare future opera professionals according to Douglas. "I believe it's in a singer's interest to know about costumes, lighting, painting sets, how line sets are hung, surtitles are written and props are found or built," he says. "They should work with different directorial styles and concepts, both traditional and experimental." (La Bohème will be on the traditional side.)
Budget plays a role in all of this, but Douglas sees his opera theater accomplishing more than other programs with the same funds because the students perform a lot of the work, so more money can go into design and supervision. "Student pianists take on the role of professional staff and do it very well. I do the rehearsal schedules. And our office has no professional secretary — it's manned by graduate assistants."
La Bohème's producer, Jamie Johnson, has been at Temple since 1979. He's sung in nine Temple Opera productions, holds master's degrees in both voice and opera performance from Boyer, and has been involved in every production since 1983. Plus, he can swing a hammer. "I was first hired as a part-time faculty member to teach production values to the opera workshop classes, and to coordinate the construction of sets for the main-stage opera productions." Whether Temple builds or rent sets, students are involved in altering costumes, hanging lights, loading and unloading trucks, and with the load-in and -out procedure in general. The entire cast is required to stay after the closing performance to strike the set. "As there are 40 singers in the cast, we have a large 'crew,'" says Johnson.
It's not all manual labor. There's emotive singing to consider, too. Kimball say less experienced students aren't always at ease with the range of emotions required. "La Boheme in particular explores jealousy, commitment, anger, grief, mourning," says Kimball. "Many students haven't experienced the death of a loved one or discovered a true soul mate, which occur in the opera. I try to find parts of their lives that they can relate to the opera and build from there."
But can Temple's student- and teacher-run opera theater do Puccini's grand eloquence right? "For those who think Temple cannot possibly do justice to La Bohème, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised," Douglas says. "We ask students to do things they don't think they can do, and go beyond what they've done before. And they do it. ... It's a great product for a college program that rivals many regional professional companies. Puccini would be proud."
La Bohème, Fri., Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m. and Sun., Nov. 23, 3 p.m., $20, Tomlinson Theater, Temple University, 1301 W. Norris St., 800-298-4200, temple.edu/boyer.