The story of “La Boheme” is richly layered and detailed, and one to which any young artist working in Portland today could relate.
The Giacomo Puccini opera, on stage this week at Merrill Auditorium courtesy of PORTopera, brings audiences into the daily lives of young artists struggling in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
As only opera can do, it tells the story of romance and heartbreak, and the struggle to balance one’s passion with an everyday need to survive.
It opens with two young men, a poet and a painter, who feed the pages of a failed drama into the stove for feeble heat. Their roommates — a musician and a philosopher — arrive with food, fuel and funds.
When their landlord shows up to collect rent, they ply him with wine instead, and then head out on the town for a night of carousing.
Sung in Italian, the story unfolds into romance, jealousy and desperate tragedy.
“I love this opera because the characters are so real,” said Dona D. Vaughn, the company’s artistic director extraordinaire. “The characters are all people we can relate to, whether here in Portland or New York or Paris and or another city where artists dwell. These are people with egos, people who have problems, people who have courage. These are people with ups and downs in relationships.”
“La Boheme” remains one of the most produced and popular operas on the circuit. That is why PORTopera is doing three performances: On Wednesday and Friday nights and a matinee on July 28.
Aside from the cast, noteworthy on the production team are two men: The music director Israel Gursky, who is back with PORTopera for the third time; and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, who lives in Portland and works on Broadway. He is a Tony Award-winning lighting designer who does not often get the chance to work in his hometown.
And now, the cast.
The leads are played by Michelle Johnson as Mimi, Jeffrey Gwaltney as Rodolfo, Alyson Cambridge as Musetta and Edward Parks as Marcello.
All are successful in their careers in opera, and all have sung on many of the most coveted stages in the United States and elsewhere. And all feel an affinity with the characters they portray.
There but for the grace of God, they might tell themselves in a quiet moment.
“I think I can speak for all us about the struggling artist sort of thing,” Cambridge told me during a break in rehearsals last week. “We all obviously hope to be successful in our careers, and we’ve all achieved some level of success. But I think we can all relate to these Bohemians we portray. They are artists, painters and singers trying to find their way. We’ve all been there.”
Cambridge grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., and gravitated toward music and singing early on. She began voice lessons at age 12, but almost hid her interest in music from her peers. She wasn’t sure if she would be accepted, and it took prodding by a particularly supportive music teacher, who told her she had “powerful pipes,” to convince her to sing at a school assembly. When she finished “the entire audience went nuts,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Really? Really? Really?’ “
When she arrived in science class after her vocal debut, her friends held up a glass beaker and challenged her to break the glass with her voice.
College followed, and then she focused on developing her voice in a professional manner. By all accounts, she has made it in the opera world. She appeared in the PORTopera production of “Don Giovanni,” and has sung with the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Lyric Opera. This season, she sings with the Washington National Opera, the San Diego Opera and at Royal Albert Hall in London, among others.
Michelle Johnson as Mimi also relates to her character.
“As artists, I think it’s almost a rite of passage. You have to go through that rough patch of not knowing when you are going to get the money to pay the rent,” she said. “You rely on a core group of friends to help you through the rough times.”
She grew up in Philadelphia, and saw her first opera when she was 8. She said that experience was mesmerizing and captivating, and made her want to sing from that early age. She studied voice in Boston, and has had a strong start to a young career.
She won the 2011 Grand Prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and has played the title role in “Aida” at the Glimmerglass Festival. This is her first time as Mimi, one of the great roles in all of opera.
Gwaltney, as Rodolfo, laughed when I asked if he could relate to his character.
“The Bohemian life is inherent to being an artist,” he said. “Every singer finds something in these roles to relate to.”
He grew up in the rural South, playing guitar and singing in church. He did not discover opera until age 18, and found it fascinating.
He said he fell in love with the art of singing, which is to say, he loved having the ability to control his voice in such a way to move people to tears.
He attended community college, then enrolled at Indiana University, which is known for its vocal program. He performs regularly with the Washington National Opera, and has sung at Glimmerglass and with the Baltimore Symphony. He lives in North Carolina.
And finally, we introduce you to Ed Parks. PORTopera fans may remember him from last year’s production of “Madama Butterfly.” He has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera, the Michigan Opera Theater and the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.
He grew up in Indiana, Pa., the son of a coal miner. He began voice lessons at age 8, and bought his first Pavarotti CD when he was 13.
Since then, singing opera is all he has ever wanted to do. That he has accomplished his goals is gratifying beyond words.
He too relates to the struggles of his character. He is not struggling now, but he remembers what it felt like when he was.
He takes nothing for granted.
“I know what it feels like to think that way,” said Parks, who lives in Queens, N.Y. “We all go through the ups and downs in this life of singing that we choose. You are only as good as your last performance.”
So true. After this run of “La Boheme,” he has his eyes on various opportunities. He auditions for roles two dozen times a year, and his life is about balancing opportunities and accepting the best offer that’s out there at the moment.
There are no long-term contracts in this career.
“I come from a blue-collar family,” he said. “I always knew I was going to sing when I was young. This is what I want to do. I never had a back-up plan.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: