If Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard, and the other starving artists who hang with them in Paris's raffish Latin Quarter were alive today, they would probably not be attending La Bohème, the opera in which they appear. It is not just that they are poor, so poor that Rodolfo survives a chilly winter day by using the manuscript of his own play as tinder for the fireplace. Aside from Bizet's Carmen, La Bohème is probably the most frequently performed work in the entire repertoire; 106 years after its premier in Turin, it hardly qualifies as the kind of cutting-edge art that Giacomo Puccini's bohemians were dying, in drafty garrets, to create.

La Bohème launches the sixth season of Lyric Opera of San Antonio on Friday, August 23, and it is a gloriously floating opera. Mark Richter, the company's founder and general director, is obviously out to please the crowd, with a work whose rapturous melodies were borrowed for the soundtrack of the movie Moonstruck: Its soul was stolen for the Broadway musical Rent.

Then after fallow years during which an entire generation of San Antonians came of age without access to live grand opera, Richter has had to build audiences, not just stage sets. He has succeeded so well that two performances of each offering in his three-opera season have not been enough to accommodate all comers.

Yet three successive days of performance can be hazardous to professional voices, so the leads in La Bohème will each be spelled. Andrea Hanson will sing the part of Mimi on Friday and Sunday, while Hyang sook Shin will sing "Mi chiamano Mimi" on Saturday. Steven Snow is Rodolfo on Friday and Sunday, while Roy Cornelius Smith assumes the role of the amorous poet on Saturday. Snow appeared in last year's production of Lucia di Lammermoor; sook Shin in a Madame Butterfly mounted here two years ago. Presented in Italian with English supertitles, the Lyric Opera's production of Puccini's opera will — for a few hours at least — make San Antonio a trilingual city.

"Opera is the most powerful expression in all the performing arts," proclaims Richter. "It's also the most expensive." Expenses for this production of La Bohème will total $90,000, a meager sum for companies in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston, but about 15 times the budget for a production during Lyric Opera's first year. Puccini is reported to have wept while writing Mimi's death scene, but Richter seems less lachrymose about having to write about 100 paychecks in order to stage La Bohème. In addition to the cast, crew, and stage director David Walsh, the operation includes conductor Wayne Wyman and the 30 musicians who just about fill the orchestral pit. Add to that a 30-member chorus, directed by Kristen Roach, and a 15-member children's chorus, directed by Ruth Berg. Still, three tickets to San Antonio's La Bohème cost about as much as one at the Metropolitan Opera; and even if all 1,000 seats at the relatively intimate McAllister Auditorium are sold, it will still cover only about 38 percent of costs. For the rest, Richter must rely on the kindness of friends of vocal art.

So it is understandable that Richter flinches when asked whether he will ever stage works by Philip Glass, John Adams, or other living composers. "We might in about two years do contemporary operas," he replies, but he is wary of losing support he has not yet won. A bookstore that sold only Dickens and Dostoyevsky would be promoting literature as a popular but not a living art.

In the meantime, well-fed audiences can at least delight in the passionate spectacle of glamorous indigence. There are likely to be more than a few doctors in the house but precious few seamstresses to witness the romantic tribulations of Mimi, who makes her living with needle and thread but lives her life with brio. She eventually dies of tuberculosis, but it is not the kind of conspicuous consumption that drives audiences to the shopping mall and the opera house. A marriage of theater, music, and dance, grand opera is designed to be extravagant, even, as in La Bohème, when portraying people who cannot afford to pay their dinner bill and even when fledgling companies cannot risk disturbing skittish patrons.

La Bohème
7:30pm Friday, August 23 & Saturday, August 24
3pm Sunday, August 25
McAllister Auditorium
San Antonio College
1300 San Pedro
225-5972 (Lyric Opera)


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