Q & A: Courtney Lewis on ‘La Bohème’ & Jacksonville Symphony

By Francisco Salazar

On April 29, the Jacksonville Symphony will present a new production of “La Bohème” with a cast made up of stars and rising stars. Courtney Lewis will conduct the production, which will be semi-staged.

Lewis has been the Music Director of the orchestra for six years and he recently announced an additional contract extension that will keep him as the organization’s artistic leader through the 2023-24 season. He has also conducted the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Lewis has appeared with the Atlanta Symphony, Colorado Symphony, Washington National Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Houston Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, and Louisiana Philharmonic, among others.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Lewis about the upcoming performances and conducting Puccini’s most performed work.

OperaWire: Why was “La Bohème” the best choice to follow “Don Giovanni?”

Courtney Lewis: We wanted to bring another opera blockbuster to Jacksonville. “La Bohème” is, perhaps, the perfect opera dramatically and musically. Since Jacksonville doesn’t have an opera house, we felt it was an exciting way to build on the success of “Don Giovanni” a few years ago.

OW: Tell me about Puccini’s music and what you like to explore when you’re conducting it?

CL: It’s gloriously expressive and romantic music. We can feel the passions of the characters – their love, their jealousy, their hopes, and dreams – vividly in the music. I want the audience to share in these experiences.

OW: How does it differ from his other works?

CL: This is Puccini’s most brilliant opera in terms of shape. There is barely a redundant note in the entire score. Everything is tightly bound together serving the dramatic story.

OW: “La Bohème” is sometimes thought of as an easier work because it is performed so often. What are the challenges of the work? What are some of your favorite moments in the work?

CL: Certainly, it’s performed often, but it’s not easy. You need fantastic singers, an orchestra, and a conductor who all know Puccini’s style and can respond to the singers instantaneously. What Puccini writes on the page is often quite different from what he meant, especially in terms of rhythm. He assumed the performers were part of the great tradition of Italian opera and would know what he meant. Therefore, for an orchestra that usually only plays symphonic music, we have to find a very different style of playing.

OW: Tell me about the cast and how you went about choosing the singers for this production?

CL: It’s an international cast, and many members have sung at the world’s great opera houses. Nearly all have performed their respective roles many times in many houses. Gabriella Reyes, our Musetta, performed the role this season at The Met Opera in New York, directed by our stage director, Greg Keller! We truly are bringing world-class talent to this very special Jacksonville Symphony production.

OW: Not always does the audience of a symphony orchestra translate with an opera audience. Why do you think “La Boheme” is the perfect work for audiences who are not opera buffs?

CL: It’s an opera one can’t resist. The story of love and loss is so powerful, and the music so immediately arresting and gripping that it’s hard not to be deeply moved. I know our audience in Jacksonville will love it, and we’re especially excited about the setting in the late 1970s: the era of Andy Warhol and Studio 54. This promises to add a really exciting spin.