We arrived at opera rehearsal just in time to see the cast working on the famous Frisbee toss in “La Boheme.”
Well, OK, there’s not actually any Frisbee tossing in Giacomo Puccini’s grand opera, which the Kentucky Opera will present Friday and Sunday in Whitney Hall. “La Boheme” debuted in Turin, Italy, in 1896 and is set in Paris of 1830 — long before Mr. Wham-O invented the Frisbee.
Yet, at the end of Act II in “La Boheme,” the beautiful Musetta actually fires off a dinner plate, setting it spinning toward the chin of her ex-boyfriend, Marcello, in a scene often referred to as “Musetta’s Waltz.”
Of course, Musetta isn’t waltzing. She has just arrived at the café in her dramatic fashion — accompanied by her new beau, Alcindoro (Phil Cokorinos, a Metropolitan Opera veteran). He is too old for her, but rich. At a nearby table, Marcello (Christopher Feigum) is sitting with his Bohemian pals, and their friend Mimi, paying attention to everything in the world — except Musetta.
And that won’t do.
Director Michael Cavanagh talks the scene over with Evelyn Pollock, who acts and sings the part of Musetta.
“It’s a miff-moment for Musetta,” Cavanagh suggests to the redheaded soprano. “You look downstage to see lover boy Marcello, and, instead, old Alcindoro keeps bobbing his face into your view — while Marcello is totally ignoring you — taking you right up to that high B-flat.”
Pollock gets the picture. She clicks her heels on the hardwood floor and tosses her red ponytail. “I love throwing things on stage,” she says.
This is rehearsal, and the cast is making-do with handy props. Stage manager Tom Meehan has found an aluminum pie pan and Cavanagh tosses it to Pollock. It wobbles in flight.
Pollock flips the pie pan over so it looks more like a Frisbee and sends it smoothly sailing to Cavanagh. He follows her lead, keeping the pie pan upside down, and sails the thing right back to her.
“Will we be using a real plate?” Pollock asks.
“Don’t worry about it. It’ll be unbreakable,” says Cavanagh. “The tables are lined up so that you just sail the plate in front of them to someone offstage. You just fling it, and they all lean back like it’s whistling right under their chins.”
The action resumes, this time with repetiteur Kristen Conn playing the score on piano and the cast singing their roles. The others all lean waaaaay back as Musetta flies the pie pan past them.
“I want everyone to see the throw coming,” Cavanagh adds. “Not just for the gag of it, but for the safety, too. So give it an up beat.”
It all worked fine until a few days later. After a real plate was added to the rehearsal, Pollock accidentally clipped Feigum right in the noggin. Three stitches.
But that’s why you have rehearsals.
Comedy to tragedy
While Musetta’s Waltz is a comic scene, “La Boheme” ends in tragedy. The story, reprised in the hit play “Rent,” weaves together the pathos of the Bohemians trying to live happy lives in total poverty. They have rented a dingy garret apartment in the attic of a building in the Left Bank. Struggling artists, pooling what little money they have. Always behind in rent.
Back in the café, where Musetta is trying to get Marcello’s attention, she fakes losing a shoe and, as Cavanagh puts it, “sends the rich guy off to the mall to buy her a new pair.” While Alcindoro is gone, the bills arrive. Musetta blithely sweeps up all the café checks and leaves them for Alcindoro — and the pals all go off to their next adventure.
But tragedy emerges when Mimi (soprano Lauren Skuce, whose voice The New York Times called “brilliant, liquid and sexy in the high register”) sinks toward death. It is winter; the snow is falling. The two sets of lovers — Marcello and Musetta, and Rudolfo (tenor Dorji Ciren) and Mimi — sing together at night in the cold open air.
Musically, the scene is particularly delicate, says the opera’s conductor John Keenan.
“It is two duets, blended together as a quartet,” Keenan explained recently to a live “Lunch and Listen” audience at WUOL-FM. “Both couples are filled with regret that they’ve frittered away time they could have had together. Musetta and Marcello are fiery lovers and their music is fiery. They have all these problems, but are probably meant for each other. But Rudolfo and Mimi, their duet is slow and languid — filled with the sadness of Mimi’s impending death.”
Tragedy looms in the music.
“It is desolate cold,” said Keenan. “You can feel the snowflakes.”