Puccini Goes Uptown

La Bohème takes the A train to Harlem in Ebony Opera's new production

When Houston Ebony Opera Guild decided to stage La Bohème, Puccini's tragic tale about struggling artists in Paris, director Talmage Fauntleroy searched for a way to tailor the composer's most popular work to the company's predominantly black cast. He found his answer in a section of northern Manhattan that, in a matter of decades starting from the mid-1800s, shifted from farmland to an Irish and Italian stronghold to the fertile setting for black America's greatest cultural contributions: a patch of earth known as Harlem, during the period now known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Fauntleroy began to see the parallels between Puccini's main characters -- a painter, a poet, a philosopher and a musician -- and the thinkers and artists who thrived between 110th and 155th streets in Upper Manhattan during the 1920s, figures like Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Eubie Blake and W.E.B. DuBois. HEOG will mine these parallels in its ninth annual production at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where costume designer Toni Whitaker will transform Puccini's poor, tattered bohemians who can barely afford a meal into dapper, crisply coifed patrons who frequent many of Harlem's famous cabarets, where, historically, blacks and whites freely mixed.

La Bohème is based on novelist Henry Murger's Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life), and contains the seeds of the starving-artist myth. As the opera begins, the poet Rodolfo and Marcello, a painter, work in a sparsely furnished attic, occasionally fraternizing with Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician. In typical itinerant fashion, the two are late paying the rent. Rodolfo soon befriends a young seamstress named Mimi, and the two fall in love. When he learns she has tuberculosis, the relationship begins to suffer.

Good-bye tattered rags: Costume designer Toni Whitaker upgrades the wardrobes of Puccini's bohemians.
Toni Whitaker/Houston Ebony Opera Guild
Good-bye tattered rags: Costume designer Toni Whitaker upgrades the wardrobes of Puccini's bohemians.


8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, August 24 and 25. Also at 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 29, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park

In a related scene outside Café Momus in Paris's Latin Quarter, a second pair of lovers is introduced. Eyeing Marcello, her former beau, the heartbreaking Musetta catches his attention by flirting at the next table with Alcindoro, a wealthy admirer. In the opera's signature ensemble, "Quando me'n vo'," she sings about her powers to attract the opposite sex, and gets Marcello to fall for her again. But in the opera's second half, both sets of lovers are doomed to separate: Mimi's consumption weakens her health, forcing Rodolfo to accept her inevitable death. The affair between Marcello and Musetta is destroyed when their age-old quarreling resumes.

The idea of placing La Bohème -- traditionally set in Paris, circa 1830s -- into the Harlem Renaissance came to Fauntleroy quite by accident. While leafing through a biography on Josephine Baker, he immediately connected her life to the sultry, coquettish Musetta. "In reading [various] biographies, I realized any number of these people could be pulled directly from Bohème," said Fauntleroy. "It was as if Puccini was writing about these people."

While researching the lives of Ellington and painter Archibald Motley, he saw similarities between the influx of successful, struggling black artists in Harlem after World War I and Puccini's tale. Reading about prominent Harlem-based painters William Johnson and Aaron Douglas reminded Fauntleroy of Puccini's Marcello. "Like Douglas, Marcello painted signposts and portraits," he said. Similarly, the director saw parallels between Puccini's artists and Harlem-era musicians whose tuneful forms would revolutionize American music for decades to come. In Louis Armstrong and the young Count Basie, Fauntleroy heard echoes of Schaunard.

Perhaps the most prominent visionary of the Harlem Renaissance was Marcus Garvey, a politician born in the West Indies who fervently encouraged fellow African-Americans to take pride in their color and social institutions. "The character of Colline, Puccini's philosopher, definitely fits in with the teachings of Garvey," Fauntleroy said.

Fittingly for a company that leans toward conservative adaptations, Fauntleroy and conductor Willie Anthony Waters have been loathe to change Puccini's libretto. "At no time do I call these people by different names," Fauntleroy said. The location is different, but the general milieu is the same, he explained. The only changes include minor contextual references. The Seine River becomes the Hudson River. A passing allusion to the Paris Review has been changed to The Negro World, a popular magazine known to Harlem residents.

Coincidentally, Puccini set each of La Bohème's four acts in a distinct location, making it possible for HEOG's creative team to experiment with staging. The team's main source of inspiration were images captured by James Van Der Zee, a famed photographer (and son of Ulysses S. Grant's maid and butler) who documented Harlem life for 60 years. In homage to Van Der Zee, each act of Bohème begins as a freeze, a sort of still life that heightens the beauty of the Harlem milieu.

Puccini's bohemians won't wear the tattered garb we've grown accustomed to in traditional stagings. Keeping Van Der Zee's black-and-white portraits in mind, Whitaker cloaks the female characters in classic tubular dresses with skimmed waists and handkerchief hems. Unlike the dropped waist of flapper renown, Whitaker's soft, vintage styles accentuate the waistline and show more of the body. "The waistlines and hemlines will deviate slightly from those we usually associate with the early '20s, so everybody won't look like a flapper," Whitaker said.

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