La Boheme – the gay angle

On Saturday with D to see Opera Australia’s new production of La Boheme.

I took the precaution, in view of the new surtitle system, to read the libretto through in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, such materials I was able to find on the net extended only to snippets of facing language translations and I otherwise had recourse to a pretty clunky English translation.

In the first quadro (tableau rather than “Act” – the opera follows its source in presenting scenes from Bohemian life) our young bohemians gather. It is Christmas Eve. Things are at a low pass but faced with much merriment as Rodolfo throws a manuscript of a play he has written into the stove: when the flames crackle, that must be the kisses. All of a sudden, Schaunard, the musician, returns triumphantly from a decidedly odd but also quite lucrative engagement with an elderly English milord. He tells an elaborate tale about being commanded to play until a parrot is dead and eventually poisoning it. Why Schaunard should wish to kill the bird rather than prolong the engagement and so potentially augment his fee is beyond me. Maybe he wasn’t expecting to be able to charge on a time-costing basis.

So call me dirty minded, call me suspicious, but I wondered if there was ever (and yes, I know this is fiction but I mean within the bounds of that fiction) really any parrot at all.

It turned out that director Gale Edwards had the same idea – assisted, no doubt, by the relocation of the action in this production to an Isherwood-Cabaret-esque Weimar Berlin. Schaunard entered, nattily attired in spats, attended by two even more outrageously gay/transvestite hangers on. Yes, in case you couldn’t tell (D and I exchanged glances at the corny obviousness) Schaunard was gay.

Shane Lowrencev (picture above from the SMH by Nick Moir) who was reading Brideshead Revisited at the time, has said that he decided to base his characterisation on Waugh’s Anthony Blanche – a character sometimes said to have been based by Waugh on Harold Acton but by Waugh himself said to have been based on Brian Howard.

I can’t say I saw the resemblance. Lowrencev looked more like a cross between Aschenbach and the Baron de Charlus to me, with maybe a touch of Proust.

That’s all very well, but in terms of the story about the parrot, it’s all very wrong. To simplify things rather crudely, Aschenbach, de Charlus and yes, even Proust, were all punters. If in Paris in the 1890s, Schaunard would be more Reynaldo Hahn than Proust. As models for Schaunard on Edwards’ hypothesis, Blanche, Acton and Howard are all on the wrong money side of the transaction. A strapping young man (Lowrencev is tall) in Weimar Berlin would be more likely to be drawn into a conversation about a parrot with an elderly tourist if he were muscular than if he were queeny. There would have been no need for him to be “flamboyant” and indeed from the point of view of his elderly admirer he would probably have been more desirable if he were not.

D doubted that any gay man could have been so flamboyant in the company of his fellow bohemians unless they too were gay. Now then, that’s a thought…

To tell the truth, D and I have long tired of Opera Australia’s depiction of “gay.” We are certainly over gratitude for any kind of acknowledgment of gay people’s existence, especially when it is always delivered so heavy-handedly. We don’t mind the stereotype sometimes, but does it have to be always?

6 Responses to “La Boheme – the gay angle”

  1. Victor Says:

    If they really wanted to be heavy-handed they could have portrayed Mimi as a gay man dying of AIDS. Imagine Rodolfo and Mimi sung by two tenors, ‘your tiny whatsit is frozen’ and all that. I better stop there before someone actually comes up with that interpretation of the opera.

  2. marcellous Says:

    Well, V, they got close with Rent didn’t they?

    The real issue for me was that Lowrencev’s Schaunard was the wrong type of gay for the period and the hypothesis.

    I’m sure the production will be a hit for OA and it does have a go at giving memories of Luhrman’s production a run for their money.

  3. Victor Says:

    Ah yes, I’d forgotten about ‘Rent’.

  4. wanderer Says:

    Titillation seems to be the production concept, way beyond ‘ooh look a gay’. At least Baz managed a fabulous six foot ‘Sydney’ drag queen if I remember.

    I’ll play Victor’s game, and suggest Cystic Fibrosis dying on the lung transplant list of a big public hospital, student terrace, Schnaunard working ‘the wall’, A&E waiting room and hospital cafe, with a giant chandelier and a view of the harbour, of course.

  5. wanderer Says:

    Make that the ‘waiting list”.

  6. marcellous Says:

    Titillation is really confined to the Cafe Momus scene. There is a warning that the production includes “partial nudity” but of course all that meant is (female) tits. To be fair there is a reasonable go at spectacle and that (apart from the music, the singing, the story, ie, the opera) is what will make the production a comfortable hit. I made a point of seeing the opening cast.

    For me, the second half was a bit of an anticlimax – probably because the big scenic (and titillative) guns had already been fired.

    OA says that Boheme is an opera for young people but I do not think that is really so at all: its premiss is a retrospective view on bohemianism. Amongst other things, that is clear from the extracts from the original novel which are placed in the libretto as epigraphs before each quadro.

    Simon Phillips’ production did not get warm reviews but of all the OA productions I have seen I thought that came closest to the scenario you suggest (eg: grungy student share-housing; Mimi and Rodolfo plunged into darkness because Benoit turned the lights off at the fuse box in revenge when he wasn’t paid the rent.) In Moffatt Oxenbould’s production which preceded Phillips’, Mimi inexplicably left the door open when she came into Rodolfo’s apartment – obviously MO had lived in a well-heated home for too long to get the point about the cold and the tiny frozen hand.

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