La Bohème at a Drive-in Movie Theater

Well, maybe it wasn’t an opera house, but it was somewhere to go for opera beyond your living room. It was festive indeed to join a few hundred diehard aficionados for an actual opera performance, be it a recorded performance that happened in November 2008

This was however a Bohème for the ages. Music director designate Nicola Luisotti previewing his nine momentous years to come at San Francisco Opera, Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo previewing the Lohengrin he became not so long ago in Bayreuth, Quinn Kelsey as Marcello previewing the Rigoletto he has assumed on the world’s major stages. The Mimi was Angela Gheorghiu in full diva form (on the rebound from having been fired by Lyric Opera of Chicago for skipping rehearsals to visit her then husband Roberto Alagna who was singing at the Met). You can see her as Tosca at the Semperoper this November 28 if you could somehow get to Dresden.  

And La Bohème has come a long way too in these twelve years, as is witness the 2019 La Bohème at the Paris Opera where, no longer San Francisco Opera’s kitsch garret, Caffe Momu and snow flurry, it is the astronaut Rodolfo, lost in outer space, who dies, his oxygen supply depleted.

The screen version of this now retired San Francisco Opera production focuses on faces. The musical intimacy that so infused the live performances those many years ago came into a physical intimacy that rendered the heartbreak of these young Bohemians even more apparent. In my review of the 2008 performance I did not recognize the deeply moving contributions of the Musetta of Norah Amsellem, the Colline of Oren Gradus, and the Schaunard of Brian Leerhuber, these excellent portrayals deftly directed by Harry Silverstein.

On the not-so-big screen at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Drive-In we could easily participate in the Act I seduction, Mimi seemingly in full health and happiness, oozing the fun of youth and life on the streets of Paris, we could feel up close the confused, emotional turmoil of the Act III separation, and finally address, full face, the quiet, at first un-noticed by others, death of Mimi. If ever there was a cast to make the La Bohème video this was it.

As it was in Greek theater it is for us in the opera house, dramatic catharsis is a ceremony to be felt by community. And there we were, a couple hundred, socially distanced cars (as if cars socialize), in a parking lot between two old warehouses over the bay (hardly the sculpted seashell of the drive-in theaters of yore), to cathartically transcend the sacrifice of youth. Strangely, unlike recent political rallies, no overt appreciation was shared when the arias were artfully rendered, and finally there was no blaring of our car horns at the end to release the tragic tension we all must have felt.

We all drove away silently. And more than anything else it was wonderful to have been there.

Not that drive-in movie opera doesn’t have its problems. These days the sound is broadcast on FM to your car radio, the upside is that most cars have rather decent sound systems. Rarely used in our car, the default settings, we learned, favored the bass. While this well supported Mo. Luisotti’s rather frequent emotional surges it came to make them a bit mannered. We will figure out how to adjust the balance for the upcoming Tosca on December 12.

But most troublesome was the faulty broadcast, the sound underlined by a constant rattle that often moved to an instrumental solo, or treble vocal line. We overcame the urge to leave, agreeing to accept the highly distorted sound to be able to watch this superb cast move through Puccini’s masterpiece. 

Less troublesome was the fogging of the windshield – it was cold and damp just there by the bay with our heated emotions inside the car. At first, we lowered the windows to clear the fog. When that became untenable, we had to start the car to activate the defroster. In current cars this illuminates lights inside and outside the car creating a visual distraction for the cars around us, akin maybe to someone seated near you in an opera house illuminating their cell phone to check their messages. 

Michael Milenski

MimÏ: Angela Gheorghiu; Rodolfo: Piotr Beczala; Marcello: Quinn Kelsey; Musetta: Norah Amsellem; Colline: Oren Gradus; Schaunard: Brian Leerhuber; Benoit, Alcindoro: Dale Travis; Parpignol: Colby Roberts; Customhouse Sergeant: David Kekuewa; Customhouse Officer: Jere Torkelsen; Prune Vendor: Chester Pidduck. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Harry Silverstein. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costumes: Walter Mahonney. 

Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera.