Q & A: Gregory Keller on Staging ‘La Bohème’ & Working with the Jacksonville Symphony

By Francisco Salazar

On April 29 and May 1, the Jacksonville Symphony will present a semi-staged production of “La Bohème” with world class singers.

The semi-staged production will be directed by Gregory Keller, who has helmed acclaimed opera and theater productions across the United States; he recently completed his 26th season as a Guest Stage Director at the Metropolitan Opera.

Keller recently spoke with OperaWire about “La Bohème” and working with the Jacksonville Symphony.

OW: Tell me about the staging of this “La bohème” and what you hope to discover from this very popular work?

Gregory Keller: “La Bohème” is clearly a masterpiece. All masterpieces not only speak to the time in which they were written, but they are also tasked with having to evolve so that audiences hundreds of years later still want to see it. A certain Darwinism exists in opera where productions must resonate with humanity’s current experiences in order to ultimately survive. Puccini’s “La bohème” is one of few that has proven to excel in this very difficult test of time.

I chose to set the production in New York during the 1970s to the 1980s because it was the last bohemian period in America. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and other incredible artists lived next to each all while interacting and inspiring one another. It is one of the last great periods in American culture where we can look back and see a bright artistic outburst. Though Puccini’s original production was set in Paris, New York in 1979 was my Paris of the 19th Century. I moved to New York when I was only 17 years old, so this production is a love letter to the mythical New York that I knew was there but never had the chance to fully experience. It’s a personal reflection of my bohemian youth, and my dream to live exactly as the true bohemians did.

OW: How does Puccini’s music inform what you want to say with your stage directing?

GK: “La Bohème” is one of the most tightly composed productions in the operatic canon, so nothing could be changed or cut to improve this opera. By playing the text, following the music, and pursuing the emotional truth of its story, the production essentially stages itself. Even though we are moving it to a contemporary period, it speaks of themes that are simply timeless through breathtaking and powerful music. Falling in love for the first time is one theme the world will always know.

OW: Tell me about your process of working with the singers?

GK: Early on in my career, I was trained as an actor, so I approached the material from an actor's point of view. I work directly from the text and use the clues from the text to make the story come to life. The material on the page that is acted out creates the structure while the music forms the heartbeat of the production. It is almost like alchemy where I put each character in motion, working towards the vector they desire while the music creates the reaction. Putting it all together, it creates a production that is pure gold.

OW: What is one scene you are looking forward to staging and why?

GK: I love Act three and the interaction between Mimì and Marcello where she is seeking advice about her lover Rodolfo. Rodolfo is helpless when it comes to helping Mimì, and each character is able to experience true vulnerability in these moments. The most beautiful music Puccini composed is in these scenes because that is when the characters are the most honest about how they feel. I love staging these two scenes because I always allow an immense amount of freedom for the singers to improvise. If they are being emotionally truthful, not much else is needed. The expressions just need to be honest, simple, and vulnerable. Once again, the music is the engine, and the actors are the vehicles that drive the opera to its very heart.

OW: When you’re staging a work with a symphony orchestra, what are the greatest challenges?

GK: Many orchestras are accustomed to constantly moving forward with the music. Once the train leaves the station, it goes at full velocity with the conductor controlling the beat. When you’re working with opera singers, however, time and space is needed for the singer to breathe with every phrase. Musicians have to have a musical sensitivity and musical dialogue with the singers on stage so that the music can also pause. The music never loses time, it just takes some oxygen in order to attack the next phrase and create the pulse the guides the production. The singers, the entire orchestra, and the conductor all take a breath, and we move on together. The energy of the music has to be completely synchronized, and when this happens, a really beautiful thing happens where the audience also starts to breathe at the same time. Everyone in the hall has a simultaneous physical experience through music-making.

OW: How has working with the Jacksonville symphony been?

GK: This is my first job at the Jacksonville Symphony, and there has been such an amazing support system throughout this entire process. Everyone has been wonderful, creative, and I am really looking forward to spending time there. I hope this is the beginning of a long relationship with the Symphony.

OW: What do you think audiences will discover from your production?

GK: While opera is an esoteric art form that may involve performers singing in a different language, it discusses the universal experiences we all have. You see people who are like you or people you know. Opera just presents these commonalities in a heightened vocabulary. It is always a challenge to know when to set the opera, and the reason I am bringing this production to 1979 is because it is more familiar to us. In Puccini’s case, he is writing about contemporary bohemian life. If you set the production in 2022, it can be impossible to see your own situation completely. With that distance of 20 years, however, audiences have that clarity as to who they are as people and what is going on around them. 1979 is close enough to feel familiar, but it is not so contemporary that it is impossible to see through the fog of the present moment.

OW: What haven’t we covered in our conversation that you would like people to know about this production?

GK: This is going to be a wonderful, fun evening in the theater, and people will be surprised as to how accessible the story is. Opera was the rock and roll of its day because it speaks about real people and real-life stories. I want to bring opera back to have that same feeling, that it is immediate and electric.


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