Q & A: Yongzhao Yu & Véronique Filloux on Performing Rodolfo & Musetta for the Berkshire Opera Festival’s First-Ever ‘La Bohème’

By Matt Costello

For the Berkshire Opera Festival’s first “La Bohème,” OperaWire interviewed two of the leadsYongzhao Yu (Rodolfo)  and Véronique Filloux (Musetta). The festival, not far from the historic site of Tanglewood, has over the years gained a reputation for exciting and powerful productions. It is also known for spotting rising talent poised to reach an ever wider audience around the globe. This production certainly shares these aspects, and so it was intriguing to talk with both Yu and Filloux more about the special nature of Puccini’s classic “La Bohème,” and the process of performing with the Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF) team.

OperaWire: Rodolfo is an iconic part, even legendary, as a major tenor role. What singers or specific productions have inspired you in your interpretation of the role?

Yongzhao Yu (Rodolfo): It’s my honor to present Rodolfo with Berkshire Opera Festival this summer. This is one of my favorite characters and actually it was the first opera DVD I purchased when I started to learn to sing. I still remember when I heard “che gelida manina.” It was so beautiful. I stopped myself to dream that maybe one day I can sing this role. Rodolfo is challenging but also drives all tenors crazy.

OW: Based on your experience now with ‘La Bohème’ and also ‘La Traviata,’ what do you feel the two lead tenor roles have in common? And likewise, what do you see in the two characters, Alfredo and Rodolfo, that is different?

YY: I think what they have in common is that they are both young and full of fantasies of love, jealousy and are impulsive. The difference between these two roles is that, Rodolfo is more sensitive, Alfredo is more self-respecting.

OW: Much of the tragedy of ‘La Bohème’ stems from Rodolfo and Mimi’s troubled relationship, and specifically Rodolfo’s jealousy. We don’t really see that jealousy in action, but it is something that gets in the way of true love winning. How does that jealousy shape your view of the character?

YY: Rodolfo loves Mimi so much, but in the second act when he sees Mimi talking with a stranger, he feels so suspicious and paranoid, and later he becomes even more unreasonable. But I believe his inner torment is that he loves Mimi so much but he cannot do anything to help her. He wants to offer her a better life which tortures Rodolfo even more.

OW: Is there a Puccini tenor role that you have not sung in performance but are really looking forward to?

YY: Calaf in Turandot, which is the dream role of many tenors I believe.

OW: Berkshire Opera Festival often seems to find singers who bring an extraordinary young talent to the festival. What has your experience been like with the company, its vision and approach?

YY: I’m so delighted to be a part of Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF) this summer, we’re an amazing team. I feel more like we are working together as a big family, my colleagues are all full of enthusiasm and energy. BOF really deserves lots of attention and expectations. Hopefully I will have more opportunities to sing here in the future.

OW: Does anything strike you as really special about the Berkshire Opera Festival’s production process?

YY: As I mentioned, this is really an amazing team. Our rehearsals are clear and highly efficient. Jonathon Loy inspires me so much and helps me to explore the inner world of my role. Maestro Brian Garman leads me to be so much more delicate in the music, which I really appreciate. I’ve learned a lot and I hope I will work with maestro again soon.

OW: Do you bring your own memories of experience with Paris to the role? If so, what are they? Does your life as an artist have similarities to the lives of these bohemians?

YY: To be honest, there are so many similarities. The boys in “Bohème” are more like my roommates in college. At the time we were poor but tried to make life very fulfilling. Happiness is so simple. We cheered together when someone is in love, and we were sad together when it was breaking up. It was a very precious and unforgettable experience.

OW: Musetta makes such an impression. Her character reveals another side to ‘la vie bohème’ in Paris. In your view, what does performing this bold role and ‘Quando me’n vo,’ Musetta’s waltz, tell us about Paris and Musetta herself?

Véronique Filloux (Musetta): I love singing this role, and this aria! Her entrance is certainly spectacular- and I think that’s just how she wants it to be. She is a performer, and she craves the spotlight, so we see her taking up space and turning this busy Parisian scene into her captive audience. The opulence of her entrance look is certainly in contrast to what we saw in Act one – she’s living like a queen, with her life paid for by a boring and old, but very wealthy man (no offense to my wonderful colleague Jim who sings the role!). By the end of the act, though, we see her trade the wealth of an upscale Parisian life for the love, lust, and drama-filled colorful life among fellow artists. And as for “Quando m’en vo” well, Musetta is a cabaret singer. We see the Parisian elegance, we see the sultry earthiness (particularly in the middle section), and we see throughout the whole thing that she truly is an expert of her craft. She holds attention and knows just the right moments to make a big statement, and when to leave the audience wanting more. It is a joy to sing this piece, and Puccini puts everything you need right on the page.

OW: How do you think she is like her friends, the struggling artists, and how is she unlike them?

VF: She’s an artist, just like them, but she also is always craving “more.” When she’s with a wealthy man, she craves the love and the excitement of her life with the bohemians (and the drama, lust, and love of her relationship with Marcello). When she’s with these friends, she craves the wealth and the finery that these Parisian aristocrats have to offer. She’s got a foot in each world.

OW: Musetta performs a very generous act for Mimi in Act four and yet clearly she has her feet in two worlds – art and, to some extent, money, even hedonism. In some ways, she seems to me like a character who bridges the two very different worlds of the opera- comedy and joy versus fate and tragedy. Is that how you see her?

VF: I completely agree with the way you’ve said this! I think she’s an artist, and she appreciates aesthetic beauty- and that includes the wealth and glorious costumes, jewels, etc. that she gets from her life with these wealthy men. They also give her the spotlight she craves. But as we see at the end, she’s absolutely not just vain and greedy. She may be using the men who give her wealth and access to upscale Parisian life, but she is certainly not using Marcello or any of these bohemians. She really, truly loves them, and in the end we see what matters to her- it is her friends and the people she keeps in her life. As for comedy versus tragedy, certainly Musetta is the balancing act between these two worlds we occupy so beautifully in the opera! These characters are very young, and Act two feels to me like a scene out of a TV dramedy about young people falling in and out of love. It’s over the top, it’s full of big wild emotions, and it is all behavior that feels true and authentic for Musetta, but comes off absolutely hilariously in context. And because she’s a performer, if there’s one thing she knows how to do, it’s to make a scene and catch people’s attention- for better or for worse! I love this part of playing the role. And we see her make a real journey by the end of Act four, which is fulfilling for me as an actor.

OW: Any trick for you in unlocking the role as singer and performer? The comedy, the physicality? She journeys from being light-hearted and free to perhaps, the person who will take Mimì’s fate the hardest. Quite the range for her and as a singer?

VF: Oh gosh, I love singing roles like this, and because of my voice type, I have the absolute pleasure of doing a ton of comedy, whether comedic roles or roles like this one which have comedy in them. What I love about Musetta is the way she walks the line between total elegance and grace, and total drama and, at times, even absurdity. (The day I got to break the plate for the first time, I was totally giddy!) I have had a good deal of training in physical acting and comedy- mime, neutral mask, and Commedia dell’Arte,  so I love getting to bring some of that into roles like this. I think with Musetta, she loves the spectacle and she loves having eyes on her… but in the quiet of that apartment, and in the intensity of seeing Mimì so unwell, it’s not about that anymore, and we see who she is at her core, which we saw glimpses of in Acts two and three. She loves hard and ferociously, and losing Mimì is devastating.

OW: What do you think her sacrifice at the end tells us about Musetta and her feelings for the bohemians?

VF: I think at her core, these people are her community. The community where she can be her whole self. She’s dramatic and passionate, but she doesn’t have to put on a persona with them, the way that she often does in public, where I think we see more of Musetta the singer, Musetta the diva. Mimì’s death, and the way she spends her final moments with her own community, puts into perspective for the other characters what is really important.

OW: From the array of roles you have done, who most resembles the life-force that is Musetta?

VF: In a sort of strange way, I would say Zerbinetta, who is also perhaps my favorite role I’ve ever done! The love for finery and such isn’t there with Zerbi, but what I notice about both of these women is the layering of their performer-self and their core self. With Zerbi, we see glimpses of that core self in the Prologue, when she is spending time with her troupe of players, half in costume and half still getting ready. We also see it in moments in the duet with the Composer. By the time we head into the opera, we see the performer, and we see just how smart and highly capable she is. She’s improvising, thinking on her feet, actively working around the obstacles of the more stuck-in-their-ways opera singers to integrate the two performances. And we see her masterfully balance comedy with real elegance in the long stretch of two quintets and the aria. Just like Musetta, she is spectacular, brimming with life and energy, and oscillates between elegance and silliness/comedy. She’s a performer who we get to see both in and out of the spotlight. As you can probably tell, I love and feel real connection to these women. I hope I’ll sing them both many more times!

OW: You recently performed as Agatha in Gregg Kallor’s ‘Frankenstein,’ which I reviewed as work-in-progress in Brooklyn.  What is your process like migrating from the gothic and scary mood and tone of that work, to ‘La Bohème’ — where the party, for half the opera, is definitely on? Do you approach such very different roles in different ways?

VF: When I’m doing a role in a super intense opera, like Agatha in “Frankenstein,” or in a similarly gothic role like The Girl in David Hertzberg’s “The Rose Elf,” which I did with Pittsburgh Opera in 2022, it doesn’t feel like a huge stretch from something more comedic or fun in nature. Obviously the tone of the whole piece is different, and that’s something that as an actor you’re working to find your part in, to support the story and work as a whole! But in comedy or in dramatic, scary works, I’m always just trying to play the role as honestly as I can- finding core truth and reality in these imaginary circumstances. In that way, the process is quite similar! From there, it’s knowing your role in the larger work. As Musetta, I am providing comedy and lightness for Acts 2 and 3 in particular- and that’s something I really thrive in and love to do! As Agatha, I was acting as a foil for the action that was to come, and I was serving as a manifestation of society- how people might treat Frankenstein’s monster (referred to in the opera, instead, as the Creature) and providing that horrible, difficult circumstance that is the catalyst for the rest of the monster’s actions. And as The Girl, I was a lover and a victim (and as you can tell by the lack of name, an archetype). She’s a bright light darkened by abuse and tragedy- and, in a classic Grimm’s fairy tale way, she came back around at the end to deliver a moral. In that way, it’s just inhabiting these various tones and circumstances, and really spending time to find the emotional truths of these characters! I really enjoy being cast in this wide range of roles. It keeps things interesting and challenges me in new ways as a singer, actor, and interpreter.

OW: Berkshire Opera Festival often seems to find singers who bring an extraordinary young talent to the festival. What has been your experience with the company, its vision and approach?

VF: I have loved my time here, and I feel honored to be part of such a strong cast! The performers in this show are all extraordinary, primarily young and emerging singers. I feel so lucky to be among them, especially for my first Musetta- most of the folks in this cast are reprising their roles! Brian Garman’s vision for the company is very special, and he and his colleagues bring high levels of talent to all the elements, from the principal singers and orchestra to the chorus teams and production teams. I know that this is a time where opera is struggling financially, and it makes me so happy to see this organization flourishing, and still managing to put on beautiful and high-quality works- and selling so many tickets!

OW: Anything strike you as really special about the Berkshire production process?

VF: It has been very respectful, very personal, and very fun! The rehearsal room is a warm and positive environment, which is just the best, and I feel our individual opinions about the music and the characters are celebrated and integrated into Brian and Jonathon’s visions. Singing for Brian is lovely because he is not only a great leader, but also a gracious follower- in this music that is so truly vocal, he is so great about knowing when to let the singer take the lead, and when to bring everyone back together again. It makes performing the music feel very easy. Also… this area is just beautiful! How could you not feel inspired when you’re surrounded by all of this nature? I am living my best quiet, rural life this summer… going to farm stands, getting to know my neighbors, hiking and exploring. I love it, and I feel so grounded and joyful being in this beautiful place making beautiful music.

OW: Do you bring your own memories of experience with Paris to the role? If so, what are they?  Does your life as an artist have similarities to the lives of these bohemians?

VF: As you’d probably guess from my name, I’m French-American! I’ve spent a good deal of time throughout the country, and some time in Paris. This piece is a very narrow slice of Parisian life and it’s not even in French! But the colorful, artistic, brimming-with-life scene we see in Act two is definitely one I’ve seen in my time in Paris. It is a very artistic, vibrant city. As for our lives as artists, there are definitely similarities! This career has a ton of flexibility and uncertainty- I think about how much we travel for work, and how much the people we meet are often the most grounding part of the job, as you run into them from contract to contract in all sorts of different places! And as we see in “La Bohème,” the community and friendship these artists share is truly special and keeps them grounded. My favorite parts of my job as a singer are the art-making and the community. I feel very grateful for both!