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

Puccini Goes Uptown

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.


La Bohme

Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park

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.

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.

For the men, Whitaker pulls together bowler hats, knickers, classic wool jackets, cuffed pants and textured socks. Both men and women sport stylish headgear of the period. "I'm going for a crisp look, not brand new but slightly worn, and very characteristic of Harlem's middle period," Whitaker said.

"Even if wealth wasn't present, people would have been proud of their looks. During the Harlem Renaissance, you would have seen well-dressed poor people. It's a very beautiful period. While the clothes may show signs of wear, the attitude will come through," Whitaker added.

Willie Anthony Waters, Connecticut Opera's general and artistic director, returns to Houston as HEOG's senior artistic advisor. He leads soprano Marsha Thompson in the role of Mimi, tenor Kenneth Gayle as Rodolfo, baritone Eli Villanueva as Marcello, and New York soprano Indira Mahajan as Musetta (in her Houston debut). Baritone Leon Turner plays Schaunard, and bass Louis Nabors will sing the role of Colline.

According to Fauntleroy, Bohème's cast is younger and more physically appealing than opera audiences are used to seeing. "Our Mimi is sick, of course, but she's a young black woman living alone in New York, so there's a certain strength there. She's fighting being frail, without being demure," said Fauntleroy.

Interjecting real figures such as Josephine Baker into his Harlem Renaissance interpretation of Bohème, Fauntleroy hopes to revive the spirit of that period, while resuscitating the opera for a few diehard Puccini fans. It's a mix of European and African cultures that would make those old Harlem cabaret operators proud.

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