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Why a 1960s La Bohème?

By Helena Binder, Director -- When I saw this photo in the New York Times Book Review some years ago, of the poet Allen Ginsberg, I thought, “This is my La Bohème”.  It felt natural to set the story in the age of the Beat Generation.  I imagined the tale of the young poet and his friends, on the roof of a tenement building, still holding inner dreams and ideals.  Bohemians if you will, perhaps American ex-pats who, in a quest for inspiration, free love and no doubt, escape from the looming escalation of the Vietnam War, move to Paris to pursue art and romance. 


At the time I recalled a film I had seen called “Next Stop Greenwich Village” about a group of friends, all artistic types, living in lower Manhattan in 1960, and as I rewatched it, I was astounded by the parallels to the story of La Bohème, in which a poet and a painter are friends and roommates.  With the film in mind, I started researching Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and the painters of the era, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and others.

But the reimagining of any opera must be supported by the libretto, the text.  Although the original opera was set in 1830 and was first performed in 1896, there are always young, poor artists living in Paris.  But what about the parade of soldiers in Act II?  The Border patrol in Act III?  Would the libretto allow for updating to the early 60’s and how does it connect with us today?   


 In 1962 France granted Algeria, a French colony, its independence, which began a massive wave of immigration into France.  Charles De Gaulle was a major force in this which made him very unpopular with certain French Nationalists.  There was a lot of dissension and unrest and several attempts were made on De Gaulle’s life.  The whole notion of who was a Frenchman and who was not, was called into question and many were suspicious of the Algerian people.  This seemed to align with the nationalism of the Act II parade and the opening of Act III when presumably, guards are checking identification papers. 


And what was happening here in the United States?  John Glenn orbited the earth, the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened nuclear war, Marilyn Monroe was found dead, and the U.S. commitment to Vietnam, begun in ‘61, deepened.  I could imagine our group of Bohemian ex-pats living in the midst of these events, searching for a little joy on Christmas eve, struggling with a virulent disease, making art on their meager funds and navigating love in a difficult world.  Our Rodolfo writes his poetry on a typewriter and our Marcello paints in the abstract, but much has not changed in the world since 1830 or 1896 or 1962.  Which is why the story of La Boheme still resonates today.

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