Rowan Opera Company is taking a ‘less is more’ approach to Puccini in ‘Portraits of La Bohème’

by COURTNEY SMITH
la bohem rowan university

MARIAN STIEBER

The Rowan Opera Company is drawing on “less is more” artistry for Giacomo Puccini’s grandiose “La Bohème” showpiece. “Portraits of La Bohème,” featuring fully staged excerpts from the opera, will run April 14-16 at Pfleeger Concert Hall at Rowan University College in Glassboro.

“We’re so excited about doing this particular work,” says Marian Stieber, director of the opera company. “It’s beloved the world over for its relatable and sentimental story, and the beautiful arching melodies Puccini wrote for it.”

This is the first “La Bohème” the opera company has mounted in the 24 years Stieber has been at the university. She is a full-time professor of voice at the College of Performing Arts and heads the music department’s vocal division.

Every year, she directs a fully staged opera in the spring and a fall concert of semi-staged opera scenes. During the 2020 and 2021 pandemic seasons, the College of Performing arts produced two editions of AriaFest, a series of pre-recorded performances with commentary by Stieber and assistant director Jon Garrison. “We didn’t go dark!” Stieber says. “We stayed learning and creating music.” Last spring, the company performed Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” its first fully staged production since the pandemic began.

“We’ve done works by Puccini here before, like ‘Suor Angelica,’ but that’s a one-act opera, so to do ‘La Bohème’ brings it to a different level for the students,” she says. “It’s such a great learning experience. It teaches them time management skills and teamwork, and they learn a lot about themselves in the process. And seeing it all come together in production week is very exciting and gratifying to me, as their teacher.”

Stieber wears three hats in the production: producer, director and head of musical preparation.

KEVIN MONKO

Lianna Johnson will sing the role of Musetta in “Portraits of La Bohème.”

This production is significant because it’s a rare occurrence for Stieber to have all the right voices for the roles. “I said last year to the dean, ‘I think I have a cast for “La Bohème”!’ ” she says. “And that’s how this all started in motion. I’ve had many, many talented singers over the years, but never the exact voices we needed for this production piece all there at the same time.”

The artistic process started in September ’22 with the students learning the opera’s Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

“It’s a very athletic endeavor, singing opera,” Stieber says. “You can’t take it for granted. When you’re out on the stage and there’s an orchestra beneath you, it must be in your body and conditioned in your body. That’s why we started in September. I set a memorization date. Once they reached that, I said, ‘Now the work begins to put this in your body, to really feel like you’re not trying to sing this role just from pure emotion and from your throat.’ I want them to sing this opera with their whole body, their whole heart, their whole mind and their whole being, so that when we start adding all the physical layers of the costumes and props, it’s so rooted and solid, they can bring it to the next level.”

Stieber shakes off the melodrama of the traditionally big, operatic gestures of “La Bohème” with a subtler approach.

“Sometimes when people are singing an opera,” she says, “they think everything has to be larger than life: grand, with grand gestures. But with this story, my approach is ‘less is more.’ If you just stay true to the emotions and the story, and be as simple as you can, that’s what’s going to make it have the kind of dramatic impact and connection that it should have. It’s all about being as natural as possible with your acting.”

Stieber began the process of staging after the singers were able to run through the score confidently. Then she temporarily shelved the Italian libretto for the English translation and had the students speak to each other as if they were having a natural conversation. “I asked the students, ‘Now what did your body do while you were having that conversation and what gestures did you make?’ And I told them to try those same reactions when they went back to singing it in Italian, in order to keep it just as natural as when they were having the same conversation in English. Then when we started talking about their characters and who they were as people, they could start to create for themselves with their own talents and make those characters their own.”

JIANNAN CHENG

Puccini’s luscious score will be played by the Rowan University Orchestra, a full-sized symphonic ensemble led by the College of Performing Arts’ director of orchestras, Jiannan Cheng. “I’ve watched her rehearsals and it’s a pleasure,” Stieber says of Cheng. “She’s a wonderful, wonderful conductor with a wonderful sensitivity. She works with the singers beautifully and the students feel really secure with her as a conductor. It’s a great experience for these undergraduate students to do a full opera with an orchestra. It’s not something you’d see in many of the schools.”

Puccini composed “La Bohème” between 1893 and 1895, and it premiered a year later at Turin’s Teatro Regio. The Italian composer’s story of young bohemian artists living in the 1930s Paris drew inspiration from Henri Murger’s 1851 “Scènes de la vie de bohème,” an episodic novel set a decade later in Paris’ Latin Quarter.

The opera begins on a cold winter night. The poor seamstress Mimì knocks on poet Rodolfo’s attic door to borrow a light for her candle, and it’s love at first sight. Mimì’s Paris adventures continue through the spring with Rodolfo and his impoverished friends — artist Marcello, musician Schaunard, philosopher Colline and singer Musetta, whom they meet at Café Momus — and ending with her death by tuberculosis.

Puccini’s characters and themes of tragic romance are timeless. “The story talks about young artists filled with passion and they don’t really care that they don’t have any money,” Stieber says. “They’re living on their zest for life, driven by the passion for their art, and we can all kind of relate to that on some level: finding something in our lives that we feel passionate about.”

Stieber’s staging is updated to a modern-day art gallery — hence “portraits” in the title — with a single set designed by Rowan alumnus Matheus Fialho Fiuza. Protagonists will appear in period costumes contemporaneous to Puccini’s late 19th century era “as if the characters are coming to life out of the paintings,” Stieber explains, while the art gallery’s visitors (i.e. the chorus) will be in modern clothing.

KEVIN MONKO

Michael Krasting will sing the role of Rodolfo in “Portraits of La Bohème.”

Even with some small manuscript cuts, the production is big and draws in the university’s surrounding communities. “We have a long history in the Rowan Opera Company, even before I took over, of inviting the community and anyone on the campus to be involved in the chorus.” The children’s chorus in Act II will be sung by the Rowan Community Music School’s Rowan Youth Choir. Some university alumni will join the chorus as students, shopkeepers, street vendors, soldiers and waiters.

Stieber has a background rich in opera as a classically trained lyric soprano. Standout repertoire includes Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust,” The Countess in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” and the title role in Lehár’s “The Merry Widow.”

She sang the role of Mimì beginning in her college years and continued exploring the character in concert versions over the decades.

“There’s something about the heart of Mimì and who she is, and I just really felt connected to that part. It was always a role that I knew I wanted to do. I’ve had a long affection for this music and the role of Mimì, so to teach this opera to my students has been a great joy for me this whole year, opening them up to the story, the music, the score. I think the story is very accessible and the characters are very relatable, and I think that’s its appeal.”

The production unites undergraduate students with various pursuits, including music education, music performance, and  music therapy. “They’re all coming together and doing this incredible work while they’re carrying a full load of courses and having rehearsals and concerts for other things,” Stieber says. “In the professional world, when you get hired to sing something like this, you usually have months and months of preparation and no other distractions, but these students are handling a lot at one time.

“They’re ready, and I couldn’t be prouder. When they just started to go into the orchestra rehearsals, I told them when you’re out onstage and you hear that beautiful score come underneath you, that’s when the whole Puccini experience comes together. I’m excited for them, and I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces!”

Rowan Opera Company will present “Portraits of La Bohème” at Pfleeger Concert Hall at Rowan University College in Glassboro, April 14-15 at 7:30 p.m. and April 16 at 2 p.m. Visit ovationtix.com. The shows will also be livestreamed; click here.

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