Pacific Opera Project 2017-18 Review – La Bohème / The Hipsters: An Intelligent Adaptation of the Puccini Classic Set in the 21st Century

By Maria Nockin

On December 8, 2017, Pacific Opera Project presented its version of Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème,” called “The Hipsters.” Artistic Director and Company Co-Founder Josh Shaw defines “hipsters” as twenty to thirty-year-old well-educated members of a subculture that values independent thinking, an appreciation of art, creativity, intelligence, and the witty banter of well-educated young adults, many of whom have liberal arts degrees. Shaw’s English titles supplied a great deal of witty banter while the singers were singing the original Italian text.

Smartphones and Barbecues

“The Hipsters’” story was set in the present where the characters had smartphones, a portable barbecue, and a bicycle. Winter, however, is just as cold in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth and The Hipsters had no heat. Costumer Maggie Green clothed the men in busy thrift store sweaters and bright colored pants. Mimì wore tights under denim and lace shorts, while Musetta donned a short gold sequined dress that she later replaced with tight jeans. Marcello sported a “man-bun” as he worked on his Mac. Rodolfo, called Rudy by his roommates, wrote his play on an old typewriter and the opera opened to it’s clicking.

Director Josh Shaw also designed the scenery for this four-act production. Acts one and four took place in the garret that Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline shared. In the room we could see, they had a couch, a wooden chair, a drape that Marcello may have painted, a wood stove, shelves of books, pictures on the back wall and a coffee table.

Although Shaw omitted the chorus and many of the supernumeraries who usually appear in Act two, the interaction between the main characters drew one laugh after another from the audience. Act two was a little bare if you are used to the Met’s production, but Christmas Eve on a Parisian street was merely a momentary respite from the opera’s impending tragedy. “The Hipsters’” story centers on the four men and two women. Katherine Powers, the Musetta, assumed several amusing poses as she worked on gaining Marcello’s attention and reigniting his love for her.

In Act three, lighting made us feel the cold of a northern European winter while Rodolfo and Mimì promised to stay together until spring. Unfortunately, the relationship between Marcello and Musetta disintegrated into a name-calling contest. When we returned to the garret for Act four, we were in the grip of Puccini’s tragic story and few eyes were dry at the end of the performance.

This show actually had three 10-minute intermissions that were just long enough for patrons to replenish the wine and other refreshments on their tables. Seating for most of POP’s performances is at small tables. A platter of “munchies” and one bottle of wine is included in the price of the table.

Outdoing Themselves

Conductor and collaborative pianist Parisa Zaeri, a member of the 2016 Dallas Opera Women’s Conducting Institute, provided the piano accompaniment and supplied a great deal of musical artistry. She gave this riotously funny show the needed tension and a strong base that foretold its tragic ending. While the characters onstage gave us comedy for three acts, there was always emotional intensity from the piano. I would like to hear Zaeri conduct an orchestra playing this score so that I could relish every detail of her interpretation.

Pacific Opera Project always has strong singers and this time it outdid itself. Tenor Dane Suarez was a Rodolfo with a bit of heft to his voice that gave him attractive overtones. His acting was a bit stiff at the beginning of Act one, but eventually, he settled in as Mimì’s chosen partner. Daria Somers was a loving Mimì who saw the man she wanted and drew him to her. A touching Mimì, Somers came across as a three-dimensional character who was fully aware of her fate. Vocally, her high tones were silver-tipped and her ample low notes were beautifully colored and well supported.

Alex DeSocio was a Marcello to remember because his voice had a complete palette of baritone colors. From the moment he opened his mouth his sound was unalloyed gold and nowhere did he show a moment’s strain. Katherine Powers was a most amusing Musetta whose excellent comedic timing made her a perfect foil for DeSocio’s Marcello.

As Schaunard, E. Scott Levin was a bronze-voiced frat boy going kicking and screaming into adulthood. Keith Colclough was a thoroughly impressive Colline, whose tones resonated in the “Overcoat Aria” and made it a highlight of the evening. Singer and composer William Grundler played three small roles: Benoit, the roommates’ landlord; Alcindoro, Musetta’s  sugar daddy; and Parpignol, the toy seller. He gave each character a separate identity, a different personality, and an individual sound.

Pacific Opera Project’s “The Hipsters” was a holiday present to Los Angeles and there was not an empty seat in sight. Shaw promises to stage it again in December of 2018. In the meantime, the company will present a gangster-themed version of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in April, the West Coast premiere of Rossini’s “La Gazzetta” in late June/early July and a fully fleshed-out production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” in October.


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