Interview: Cape Town Opera’s La bohème- directed by Magdalene Minnaar- conjuring up a hybrid, fantastical, bohemian trailer park

What: La bohème

When: November 25, 27, 28, 2021
Booking: or through Artscape Dial-A-Seat 021 421 7695  
Director: Magdalene Minnaar
Set design: Bettina John Lighting design: Stefan Benade Music director: Jeremy Silver

In February 2020, before Covid brought the curtain down on live performance, Cape Town Opera presented La bohème at Artscape, as a co-production with Konzert Theater Bern. Directed by Matthew Wild, the mood was New York – in an Andy Warhol Factory state of mind. Puccini originally set La bohème in Bohemian Paris. For 2021, Cape Town Opera, brought Magdalene Minnaar on board to direct a touring production through the Eastern Cape and to create a La bohème with a different vibe to the February 2020, pre-pandemic production. Minnaar has placed La bohème in a “hybrid, fantastical, bohemian trailer park” in South Africa. This is the milieu in which the Young Bohemians sing through their angst, aspirations; searching for meaning through art, work and love. The tour kicked off in September [2021], at The Guild Theatre in East London. It then went on to the Savoy Theatre in Gqeberha, John Rupert Theatre in Graaff-Reinet and Oudtshoorn Civic Centre. The production is finally making its debut at home, in Cape Town at Artscape.

Hybrid, fantastical bohemian trailer park- costumes with 80s glam, African chic and the roaring 40s

I had been under the impression that the setting is South African township, but Magdalene Minnaar says: ”Technically this is not set in a township as such, but rather a kind of hybrid, fantastical bohemian trailer park. The concept came about when Bettina [John] and I had to look at reusing some old sets from previous CTO productions. I wanted something bright and colourful that can be a kind of blank canvas for the story to unfold in. Bettina designed fantastic costumes for this production. We wanted to create colourful, interesting shapes and textures that span through several costume eras. There’s a bit of 80s glam, African chic and the roaring 40s. The costumes are very much a part of the characters. In terms of set, as we were really worked with a sort of blank modular canvas. I added some wild props to inhabit the guy’s living space. As this was a touring production, we also don’t really have static scene changes but the actors help to morph the different scenes into each other. It’s really cool to see how we change from scene to scene.”

Comedy and fun to give audiences a lift off

Has the pandemic and lockdown filtered into this staging?  “It’s hard to get away from the effect that the pandemic has on all of us, so it was definitely an influence. I wouldn’t say that it is part of the concept though. Our world is quite a sheltered, safe environment where artists can live out their best dreams. I believe that we need some theatre at the moment that will leave our audiences feeling uplifted and positive, with a healthy dose of comedy. The tragedy is so well written into the story, and with our version it certainly is very ‘real’. My directing style is definitely different, and I think the beauty of this well-loved opera is that it can really work with a myriad of different approaches and still ‘work’. I tend to not want to stray too far from what the original intention of the librettist and composer was, and we had some good fun figuring out ‘new’ ways to present some of the stage directions written in by Puccini, Giacosa and Illica.”

Input from the cast in creating this trailer park La bohème

Was there input from the company, in shaping the scenes and characters? “I love creating colourful, three dimensional characters. I always come with a framework and ideas from which we then use the rehearsal space to find other interesting angles for the character to grow. It is important for me that the actors themselves come with suggestions, and I ask a lot of questions about character.”

Opera on the road -through the Eastern Cape

This touring production is finally coming home, after being on the road since September. What has the response been on the tour? “It was absolutely incredible to take this production around the Eastern Cape. The audiences absolutely loved our Bohème, and you can’t blame them – with the calibre of singers that they experienced. I find it so heart-warming to know that opera is still such a popular and well-loved art form through-out SA.”

Magdalene Minnaar – directing Cape Town Opera’s La bohème [2021 touring production]. Supplied.

❇This interview has been marginally edited for length and clarity. Images supplied.