In February 2020, before Covid live performance to a halt, I saw Cape Town Opera’s, La bohème at Artscape; a co-production with Konzert Theater Bern, directed by Matthew Wild. The season was sold out. On Thursday November 25, 2021, I attended the opening of the Cape Town leg of Cape Town Opera’s 2021 touring production of La bohème -at Artscape. Under lockdown regulations, only 170 may be seated – in a venue which can seat, just over 500 people. It was sold out. The vibe of the February 2020 production was framed as conceptual art performance in a New York frame of mind. It was stylised and fantastic. Watching the touring La bohème 2021 was like watching another La bohème- outstanding but totally different- full of surprises -not like any La bohème that I have seen –live on stage or recorded.  Cape Town Opera’s touring La bohème is set in an alluring hybrid, fantastical, bohemian trailer park” in South Africa, with a five piece on-stage instrumental ensemble, conducted by Jeremy Silver who also plays the piano. Maestro Silver frequently plays one handed as he conducts and flips his IPad, for the music to load. There is a sense of this being a street band –in the city. []

Magdalene Minnaar, as director has cooked up a La bohème which taps into the creativity, passion, resilience of artists in the live performance industry, during the pandemic. Humour is an essential tool as we muddle load shedding (electricity outages), loss, and unemployment.  Laughter and laughing is a great release. Dark mirth underscores the touring La bohème. This urban trailer-park/shack land- could be in Woodstock, Cape Town or an inner city pop-up commune of artists. They have set up to live, work, love and make the most of their circumstances. In this La bohème, they frequent a nearby night market, serving South Africa dishes and drinks (look out for the Joko Tea). Read the programme notes – scroll down for box – and you will see the fabulous inspired contemporaneity of this production- a very South African La bohème.  It is Puccini’s music and the libretto is the libretto but oh my, there is cultural shape shifting; voice-overs (yes, Africa Melane and Juanita van Wyk, we hear your dulcet tones on the public announcement system, booming out). The chilled out multi-talented cast- moves the set and props – like one might find in a bonsai musical theatre production.

Load shedding figures prominently in Act 1, with the protagonists scuttling around for candles and using solar powered lamps. Lighting designers Stefan Benade and Nicolaas De Jongh have a lot of fun with the blinking of a street lamp –and fairy lights used to decorate the studio and commune of Marcello, Musetta, Rodolfo, Mimì and their cohort of young bohemians. We laughed. We needed that because La bohème is a tragedy and we are living in dark and troubled times. Core to the libretto of La bohème is that Mimì is ill. She is wracked by a cough. As the on and off relationship with Rodolfo, plays out, her condition worsens. Watching on Thursday night and it resonated, for me as a Covid cough. The young bohemians are a self-absorbed, narcissistic bunch. In this production, one gets a deep sense of caring and connection; loyalty to each other. Sure, they don’t want to be laden down by domesticity. Musetta famously croons that she is not cool when lovers start behaving like husbands. However, they are not detached young bohemians who could not give a toss about older people. This came across in the March 2020 Cape Town Opera production. Rodolfo and Mimì clearly cannot live together -but they are lost – when not together. As Mimì takes her last breath, I could hear the audience holding its breath, behind the Covid masks. Mimì cannot win against her physical circumstances –poverty and cold. This hits very much home to the times of Rona. The compliant, sensible Mimì character is contrasted vividly against the brash and recalcitrant Musetta. It is a potent showdown between the two women.

The on-stage instrumental ensemble works brilliantly, in sync with the singers. Musicians and singers interact and watch each other for cues. Ané Pretorius as Musetta is magnificent as she drapes herself around the piano, gesturing, wooing the musos. This is her shtick. She is not only charming her bohemian clan, but also the ensemble. Pretorius’ performance is a revelation. She is the central and vital force of this La bohème. Her Musetta is like a diva siren, from a gutter in Naples, Italy, who has been dropped into Cape Town, garbed in faux red couture. She has hooked up with street artist Marcello (William Berger- internationally renowned South African singer) and he also looks like he has also emerged from a seedy Naples. Perhaps they fled the pandemic in Italy. The acting of the entire company is dazzling. Watch them in the restaurant scene. The Italian diction of Pretorius and Berger is faantastica/fantastico (not that I speak the language – I have a smattering). They are this bawdy and utterly tacky couple – colourful and bright -and wow we would all love to be them- young, free and unfettered by conventions and domestic arrangements.  

I am, used to seeing Pretorius taking on male and buttoned down roles and was intrigued to hear that she recently transitioned from lyric mezzo to soprano. I was bowled over by her performance and her voice, which not only hits the notes but is layered with passion, insouciance and teases out complexities that I have not seen before in the Musetta character. Pretorius told me, after I saw the show on Thursday: “I recently transitioned from lyric mezzo to soprano. This is the first time that I have had a chance to interpret such a feminine role. It has been so much fun getting to tap into the feminine energy rather than become a male on stage which requires something completely different from me…” I was interested how the shift in voice came about. She explained: “I started out as a fairly low voice and sang mezzo and also in alto- and eventually in high school – soprano 2- the slightly lower soprano.  But I always felt most comfortable in repertoire that stayed in a middle range and only showed off my high notes every now and again as I really struggled to sustain a higher tessitura. As I became older my voice naturally lifted a bit in a comfortable tessitura so I felt that I was a lyric mezzo. Roles like Dorabella in Così fan tutte sat very comfortably. When the pandemic started, I changed singing teachers and learnt things that I never understood before and the improvement in singing technique definitely influenced my voice to finally free up much more in the higher range. …I believe that I have a heavier type of soprano voice which often starts out being more comfortable in a lower tessitura and as it develops, becomes/ learns how to ‘live’ higher.”

A magnificent achievement: Cape Town Opera’s 2021 touring production of La bohème. There were only four shows for the Cape Town season. I hope that this production of La bohème is staged again. When we arrived at the Thursday night show in Cape Town, February 25, 2021, there was panicky talk about the Omicron coronavirus variant which was reported by South African scientists on Thursday. It felt like a replay of November 2020, when Rona numbers spiralled. We went into the theatre, heavy with anxiety and then this fantastical spectacle unfolded: Lyrical Puccini score, tragi-comedy libretto spiced up in a South African state of mind, glorious voices; astounding instrumental ensemble; fab design and costumes.

La bohème -Cape Town Opera’s 2021 touring production: Marcello (William Berger) – as street artist.   Supplied.
La bohème -Cape Town Opera’s 2021 touring production: Mimì (Zandile Mzazi) and Rodolfo (Lukhanyo Moyake). Supplied.
La bohème -Cape Town Opera’s 2021 touring production- credits

Creative Team  

Composer:-Giacomo Puccini  
Libretto: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa        

Music director: Jeremy Silver  
Director: Magdalene Minnaar  

Set and costume design: Bettina John  
Lighting design: Stefan Benade and Nicolaas De Jongh  

Marcello’s artwork is inspired by Cape Town-based artist Paul Senyol    

Rodolfo: Lukhanyo Moyake  
Mimì: Zandile Mzazi  
Marcello: William Berger  
Musetta: Ané Pretorius  
Schaunard: Lwazi Dlamini  
Colline: Conroy Scott  
Alcindoro: Garth Delport      

Ensemble Piano and conductor: Jeremy Silver  
Violin: Eriel Huang  
Cello: David Pinoit  
Flute/piccolo: Louisa Theart
Clarinet/B=bass clarinet: Frances Brand    
Synopsis- supplied by Cape Town Opera

Act 1 – Rodolfo, an emerging screenwriter, and Marcello, who is a street artist, are seen outside their humble trailer residence where they like to work. They are both dragging their feet to finish their respective deadlines – Rodolfo is simultaneously working on a new screenplay and finishing an article for “The Beaver” which is due the next morning. As they toil, Colline joins them and tries to rescue their fire which is steadily dying. Schaunard enters with food “fit for the gods” and they proceed to dig into a culinary feast, while Schaunard tells the bizarre tale of how he came to afford such lavish provisions. When no one listens to how he had to play his violin until a parrot died, he tells the friends that tonight is indeed an eve of celebration – that they can drink at home, but definitely dine out. They decide to go to a local night market, more specifically Cafe Momus. As they get ready to leave, Rodolfo realises that he will have to finish his article before spending the night out on the town, and reluctantly starts cleaning up after his friends so that he can concentrate on his overdue work. Just as he settles in, load-shedding plunges his world into darkness. He notices a girl struggling with a torch – Mimì lives next door and he invites her in to help find batteries. A significant chain of events follows: he gives her a candle which is blown out, she loses her keys, and his own lantern also dies. As they search we see how they steadily fall in love – almost like a time-lapse of their destiny – until her “icy little hand” meets his. As their love blossoms, they share their life stories with one another. As it is with opera, they are completely smitten with each other after two arias (as well as a rude interruption by the now impatiently waiting friends), and they consummate their love on the couch with a glorious duet.  

Act 2 – The night market is bustling with assorted vendors – flowers, hats, coats, trinkets – anything and everything is available as the friends wander about the plaza. They each purchase precious items: Schaunard an out-of-tune trumpet, Colline a valuable antique publication and coat, while Rodolfo buys a beautiful pink beret for Mimì. Rodolfo has a moment of jealousy as they make their way to Cafe Momus where the friends are already waiting for the loving pair. Musetta, Marcello’s volatile ex-girlfriend, enters melodramatically with her sugar daddy Alcindoro, and immediately endeavours to make Marcello as jealous as she can. Ultimately love wins, and Alcindoro is left with an enormous bill.  

Act 3 – Mimì is looking for Rodolfo, who abandoned her after an argument. She is hoping to find him at Marcello and Musetta’s new apartment, where she teaches singing and he paints murals to pay the rent. When Mimì explains how jealous Rodolfo has been, essentially chasing her away, Marcello can’t believe that his friend has been acting so possessively and irrationally. He asks Mimì not to make a scene, and pretending to leave, she hides within earshot of Rodolfo entering. Rodolfo tries to persuade Marcello that he is fed up with Mimì’s flirtatious behaviour, but eventually admits that it is her fatal illness that is leading him to push her away as he cannot afford to help her. He refuses to let her live poorly when actually she needs urgent medical attention which he cannot pay for. Mimì overhears it all and after a coughing fit the young lovers are reunited, deciding that they will only leave each other when Spring returns. Meanwhile Marcello has heard Musetta laughing flirtatiously inside their apartment, and their shouting match escalades onto the pavement.  

Act 4 – Some months have passed, and we see the friends watching football on the couch. They have seen each other’s ex-girlfriends and both try to hide their surprise. They decide to rather put their energy into their work, which leads them to express their innermost feelings about Mimì and Musetta. Schaunard enters, this time with an underwhelming meal – a single loaf of bread. Chaos ensues with a pirate ship, a puppet show and a pillow fight as they “play” away their hunger. Musetta breaks the fun with news that she just found Mimì in the street – she is extremely ill and in need of immediate help. The friends help by adding items to be sold so that they can afford medicine and a doctor – Musetta offers her expensive earrings and Colline his coat. Mimì declares her love “as big as the ocean” to Rodolfo, and Musetta enters with some warm gloves that Mimì had wanted to buy the day at the market. Rodolfo is overcome by emotion as Musetta pretends that he in fact bought this for Mimì himself, who calls him a “spendthrift” in a last flickering of banter. Mimì passes her last breath, and as the friends look at one another, Rodolfo realises that his sweetheart is forever departed.  

Featured image: Ané Pretorius (in red) as Musetta in Cape Town Opera’s 2021 touring production of La bohème. Pics supplied.