Pittsburgh Festival Opera reimagines a Puccini classic with a Pittsburgh twist in La Bohème Warhola

By July 11, 2018 No Comments

Jessica Sandidge in La Boheme Warhola (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera)

By Amanda Reed
PC Staff Writer

When a seasoned theater-goer thinks of an updated version of La Bohème, the classic 1896 opera by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, they usually think of Rent, the 1994 Jonathan Larson musical, as its modern parallel.

But when Pittsburgh Festival Opera Artistic Director Jonathan Eaton thought of how to transform the work — known as “one of the great chestnuts of the grand opera world” — his mind was transported to Andy Warhol and the 1960s New York Factory scene. That led to La Bohème Warhola.

“Andy Warhol and his studio of fellow artists would break the artistic mold, party up a storm and then hit life or death reality — Andy Warhol was shot,” he says. “And suddenly, all the things that the art world is perhaps excited by and skating over — life and death — is suddenly there.”

La Boheme Warhola. 7:30 p.m. July 12, 14, 19. Falk Auditorium, Winchester Thurston School., 555 Morewood Ave., Shadyside. $25-$65.  

That parallels the plot in “La Bohème,” where four artists live a happy bohemian lifestyle until a new friend and love interest enters their life and becomes sick. From there, their world comes crashing down, and they must face the consequences of reality.

It seemed a perfect match for the Warhol version of Bohème because that period of America in the ’60s was a direct connection to the Bohemian artists who were shattering and breaking convention, Eaton says.

After Eaton’s realized the parallels between “La Bohème” and Andy Warhol’s world, he took to New York City to find a creative team that could take his idea from notepad to the stage. He found that in Heartbeat Opera, a theater company founded in 2014 whose entire mission is to reinvent and readapt operas for the modern stage. Recently, they reimagined Carmen along the United States-Mexico border with a jazz band playing Georges Bizet’s orchestration.

With Louisa Proske’s direction and Daniel Schlosberg’s arrangements and conducting, “La Bohème Warhola” takes Puccini’s plotline and puts it in the world of Andy Warhol. The four main characters are artists, but the play is moved from 19th-century Italy to 1960s New York City, where the artists are among Warhol’s factory scene and frequent some of the Pittsburgh-born artist’s favorite places, like Max’s Kansas City, then a popular restaurant and bar in New York City (it closed in 1981).

In order to match the score with the setting, Schlosberg rearranged Puccini’s score for a full orchestra into a 10-piece chamber orchestra — including three keyboards (which play a total of 80 sounds), drums, violin, cello, french horn and two reed players who play five to six instruments each throughout the show.

Schlosberg says the setup aims to make Puccini’s score sound like the music of the Velvet Underground, whose members were closely associated with Warhol, while still keeping true to what makes Puccini sound like Puccini.

“Puccini for me is so about color, and although his music is very Romantic, he is a Modern composer,” he says, referring to different periods in music history. “ I can run with that a bit and just go crazy with the amount of color that I can get from 10 instruments.”   

When setting the scene for the show, Proske didn’t want to make a “touristy” version of the show and just tag ’60s decor on the production. Instead, she wanted to find the deeper connections between the opera and the interesting, exciting world of the Warhol circle.

To do so, she drew parallels between what was considered bohemian in the 19th century versus the 1960s.

“These artists essentially have replaced making real art artifacts like painting and plays and texts with the sort of art of living,” Proske says. “I think is very true for all the drag queens, superstars, freaks, hustlers, models, actors that made up the circle of Warhol, and that they were essentially the works of art.”

Proske also looked at the historical impact of the era in connection to history at large and what occurs in the plot of the opera.

“I think that world essentially crashed and that sort of reflects a bigger mood of the ’60s, which started with so much optimism and belief in utopia and ended with kind of turning points where that vision sort of crashed,” she says.

Although the opera bears Warhol’s name, according to Proske, the time and place are more important than the person.

“We have a few tongue-and-cheek references but … you’re not going to see him as a character and you’re not going to see his art explicitly onstage,” she says.

According to Eaton, reinventing the opera makes it enjoyable for the most seasoned opera-goer and for the person who bought a ticket out of sheer curiosity.

“[La Boheme] is a marvelous work, it’s a great masterpiece and seeing it in a fresh light makes it feel like it was performed for the first time today,” he says. “That’s what’s exciting.”

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