For Boheme Opera New Jersey’s new production of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” director Eric Gibson has decided to update the action from 1896, when the piece was written, to “the day you’re watching it.” Performances by an accomplished cast take place on Friday, April 24, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 26, at 4 p.m. in the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater.
Boheme Opera takes its name from a club founded by composer Puccini in the 1890s, and not from Puccini’s opera, according to Sandra Pucciatti, managing director and BONJ co-founder with her husband, Joseph Pucciatti. Puccini’s Boheme Society, Sandra says, gave poets, musicians, artists, philosophers, and writers a chance to gather and unwind.
The 26-year-old company has presented “La Boheme” twice before, more conventionally. The opera is sung in Italian with English supertitles.
In this new and updated “La Boheme,” conducted by Joseph Pucciatti, Erica Strauss debuts with the company as the tragically ill Mimi. Strauss made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the 2009-’10 season. Benjamin Warschawski plays Mimi’s lover, the writer Rodolfo, in whose Parisian garret apartment the action of the opera begins. An ordained cantor, Warschawski has appeared previously with BONJ.
The opera opens on Christmas Eve as writer Rodolfo and painter Marcello, his apartment mate, try to warm themselves by burning hard copies of Rodolfo’s writings. Eric Dubin, debuting as Marcello, has sung leading operatic roles throughout the Northeast.
Joining Rodolfo and Marcello in the garret are musician Schaunard (Charles Schneider, who debuts with BONJ and has appeared in Princeton with the Princeton Festival) and philosopher Colline (Martin Hargrove, who has appeared on both sides of the Atlantic).
The lively Musetta, Marcello’s former girlfriend, who pawns her earrings in order to buy medicine for Mimi, is played by Sungji Kim, who has performed on three continents. The role of Alcindoro, Musetta’s rich current boyfriend, is taken by Edward Bogusz, who also plays landlord Benoit. Bogusz has sung with BONJ since its start in 1989.
Brittany Montoro trained the Boheme Opera Chorus. The children’s chorus, based at Princeton’s Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, is trained by Stuart’s choir director Erin Camburn.
The design team includes J. Matthew Root, digital set design; Mike Voytko, lighting; Kathy Slothower, costumes; and Patricia DelSordo, wigs, makeup, and hair. Jason Milstein is the technical consultant.
The April production is the first “La Boehme” that Gibson has staged. Interviewed as he was reaching final decisions about updating the production, the director says, “There will definitely be some cell phones.”
“No locations were changed,” Gibson says. “But I wanted to give the production an American sensibility. So I made some of the main figures foreign students from America. Every graduate student I know is poor.”
“In opera you can’t change the characters too much because the voice parts are fixed. The traditional Mimi can be feminine and fragile. The modern-day Mimi is more sassy. Maybe she’s in denial about her disease.”
In Act I, according to the synopsis, Mimi’s candle goes out and she can’t find her key. She seeks help at Rodolfo’s door. Bringing the situation up to date, Gibson says, “Probably her cell phone died, and her flashlight app failed.”
Act II originally calls for a toy seller, Parpignol, who is followed by a crowd of children. Gibson replaces the itinerant Parpignol with a Santa Claus-like person and the Stuart School chorus. The Act II soldiers’ chorus, prescribed in the original, strikes Gibson as somewhat implausible; he replaces it with a band.
Act III in the original provides for customs officials inspecting the documents of farm women. Gibson thinks that, to the contrary, marketplace vendors checking their licenses makes sense today.
Gibson is inclined to leave Act IV unaltered. “The original story is up-to-date,” he says.
Caution is Gibson’s guide in modernizing a classic. “I’ve directed a lot of transfers,” he says. “When you add things that complicate the plot or make the audience wince, it doesn’t work. It’s the story line that drives musical theater; you don’t push it to make it look modern day.”
Rather, he looks to emancipated, freely moving actors to make a contemporary impact. “A modern way of behavior works on stage. Characters can’t just stand and sing, and all of a sudden they die. That doesn’t seem sincere because it’s not realistic.”
Gibson counts on performers to expand on his ideas if a production is to be truly convincing. “I don’t know any of these singers,” he says. “I have to see how far they are willing to go. They seem to be playful. Some performers won’t do anything unless you tell them. With some, you give them an overall concept and let them do the rest. Then they own it.”
For crowd scenes Gibson likes to have performers act as individuals. “I like to invent relationships and families,” he says. “I give each person a hint of who they are. I like to give performers enough to chew on so they can build and create.”
Gibson believes that listeners play a role in a successful performance. “The audience has to come up with lots of suspension of disbelief,” he says. “If Musetta sold her earrings earlier and bought medication earlier, then Mimi might have lived. But then there would be no opera.”
As director of the piece, Gibson participated in designing “La Boheme’s” digital sets. “We talked about how to establish where we are and tweaked images,” he says. “The backgrounds are suggestive rather than specific. There’s a print motif throughout everything. Rodolfo is a writer. The print motif gives texture and ties in to the story.’
Gibson was born in Detroit in 1968 and grew up in Michigan. His father was a chemical engineer; his mother was a housewife. They were not musical, but they were supportive “For all practical purposes, I was an only child,” Gibson says. His siblings were considerably older.
Gibson’s first instrument was piano starting in second or third grade. His stint in high school as the accompanist for a school musical sparked his interest in musical theater.
By the time he was a college sophomore Gibson was directing musicals. In 1991 he earned a bachelor of music education degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a major in voice and piano. After further voice study in Ann Arbor and directing engagements in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, he entered the University of Indiana’s program in stage direction of opera and earned a master of science degree in 1997.
As director of education for Tulsa Opera from 1998 to 2001 Gibson focused on opera presentations involving children.
From 2002 to 2013 Gibson was artistic director of LOOK Musical Theater, a professional musical theater company based in Tulsa, directing and choreographing more than a score of productions, and supervising three year-round staff and 80 seasonal employees.
Gibson moved on from full-time in Tulsa to freelance in New York. He is slated to direct Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” for MidAtlantic Opera Company this fall. He singles out Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Showboat,” the source of “Ole Man River,” as a show that he is eager to direct, and wants to increase his engagements as a director of plays. His interest in directing Wagner is tepid. “I don’t know that directing Wagner is an aim of mine,” he says. “I enjoy going, but it’s not a big aspiration.” Otherwise, he is enthusiastic about directing operas, regardless of the language.
Gibson is beginning to think of himself as a New Yorker. “I have a lot of friends in New York, and I’m always self-educating. I came to New York for auditions, and to hear others audition. I spent summers here. And I spent every Thanksgiving in New York for the last 12 years. It was an easy transition, except for New York’s price levels.”
La Boheme, Boheme Opera of New Jersey, Kendall Main Stage Theater, the College of New Jersey, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. Friday, April 24, 8 p.m., Sunday, April 26, 4 p.m. Pre-curtain talks one hour before performances. $15 to $55. www.tcnj.edu/boxoffice or 609-771-2775.