Hickory Ridge High School might be one of the saddest places I have ever been. It doesn’t have nearly enough windows to suit its size; its labyrinthine parking lot is nearly impossible to navigate; and the inside is dull and lifeless. What the school does have, however, is friendly people and an enthusiastic arts program. This may be why it was such a perfect place to put on a preview of UNC Charlotte’s production of “La Bohème.”
“La Bohème,” which means “bohemian” in French, is an Italian opera that reflects life in early 19th century Paris, where a lot of prospective artists were poor, but happy. The characters in Puccini’s story do not let their surroundings dictate their happiness, thus creating an unlikely parallel to the school.
Usually when I go to review an event, I go to pick up my ticket and sit down to watch whatever it is that is being performed in front of me. This time it was a little different; it was a little more hands-on than originally expected. On the day of the preview, April 7, my day started at 8:00 a.m. when the cast, production designer, director and I made our way to Robinson to load the opera’s set into the waiting cars. Like a game of Tetris, we stacked trees, benches, chairs, a small fireplace and a shopping cart, along with various other miscellaneous objects on top of one another, just hoping that everything would fit. After a lot of pushing and prodding, it did. Arriving at Hickory Ridge was less complicated, but interesting nevertheless. We unloaded the set and made our way to the auditorium.
I was of little use during the set-up process, so I watched the others do it. Accompanied by the sound of laughter and chatter, the set came together, and the seemingly random objects found their rightful places. The noise died down. Soon after, the school’s theater and chorus students filed into the auditorium, somehow chatting about both everything and nothing all at once. My favorite conversation was that between two girls who fiercely debated which variety of Cheetos was best. The lights turned down, and with them, their voices.
I was worried about how the students would react to the first act, to the opera in general. After all, high schoolers can be mean, and opera isn’t necessarily this generation’s first love.
The many voices were replaced by only a single booming one, which was accompanied by a small orchestra on the side of the stage, conducted by set producer Austin Philemon. This is Tyrez Dabbs, who played artist Marcello. He is quickly joined by Hunter Aldridge, who plays artist Rodolfo, followed by the musician Schaunard (Joe McGovern), and the philosopher Colline (James Matens), until they are all together in an old attic. They are poor, causing them to argue over whose work to burn for warmth, but they are happy. It was Christmas Eve, so they all decided to go to a café. Fortunately for Rodolfo, he has not finished writing his play yet, and promises to meet his friends when he is done; the others leave. A neighbor, Mimi (Cecily Bednarek) knocks on Rodolfo’s door, asking him to light her candle. Mysteriously – or not so mysteriously – Rodolfo’s candle goes out, too. Mimi accidentally drops her key, and when the two search for it in the dark, they touch each one another’s hands. They fall in love.
At this point, the house lights once again lit up the space, and the cast moved quickly to move the set in preparation of the next act. I watched, and as I watched, I again listened to the students around me talk. To my absolute delight, they loved it, and my worries were assuaged. They discussed the plot and laughed about the parts they thought were funny. One girl told her friend that this was her first introduction to opera and how much she liked it. They spoke of the actor’s voices, and how they wished that their voices could do the same. I grinned to myself, wishing the same. They were particularly enthralled by the voice of Bednarek, whose performance was impossible to ignore.
The lights go down. Act two.
Rodolfo happily brings Mimi to the café to introduce her to his friends. There, they run into Musetta (Amaranth Weiss), Marcello’s former lover. She makes her grand entrance while hanging on the arm of a wealthy older man named Alcindoro, played by David Cruz. Musetta, only in it for the money, is clearly uninterested in the old man’s affections, thus working on attracting Marcello’s attention instead. Finally, she gets rid of Alcindoro and falls back into Marcello’s arms. When it is discovered that none of them has the money to pay for their meal, Musetta tells their waiter to charge everything to Alcindoro’s account. With the sight of a group of soldiers marching past the cafe’s windows, the friends quickly depart. Alcindoro returns to the table only to find a bill.
Again, the lights turned on, the frantic scramblings of the cast to prepare for the next act ensued and the students again started talking amongst themselves. They were completely engaged in the plot, and they were more enthusiastic than before. This had something to do with the hilarity of Musetta, and the brilliant execution by Weiss, which had the perfect reactions from her surrounding cast. Because this was just a preview of the full opera, and there was a time constraint, the story skipped the third act entirely and moved on to the fourth.
The final act starts just as the opening act: Marcello and Rodolfo are trying to work, but without any success. This time it is because they are both preoccupied with the fact that Mimi and Rodolfo no longer see each other. Colline and Schaunard come in with some food, but it is only a meager meal of bread and herring. They improvise a meal, pretend to be at a ball and even fight a mock duel with a tennis racket and an umbrella. Then Musetta bursts into the telling them that Mimi is very ill but does not dare to come in. The actors and the music stop abruptly.
It took a minute for the audience to realize that the opera had been cut short and that this was the ending they were left with. A boy to the right of me somewhere was the first to realize and let everyone know by shouting “DUDE” at the people on stage. After some outcry, the students accepted that they wouldn’t see the end of the story that day, and they began to shuffle out of the auditorium and back to their regular school day. As they left, I could hear them mimic the operatic voices of the actors. When they left, we accepted our fate and began to take apart the set, once again playing a game of Tetris with the props.
The stage seemed empty and sad without the set, and I was reminded that we were in an underfunded school that served meager lunches. I thought of the phrase, “Art imitates life,” which is usually incorporated in a meme of some kind and chuckled to myself. It is true after all.
Performances of “La Bohème” will take place April 21 at 7:30 p.m. and April 23 at 4:30 p.m. at UNC Charlotte Center City.