By Alexander C. Kafka
What’s more ambitious than a college production of Puccini’s opera La Bohème or a production of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent? The world’s first in-repertory productions of both on the same stage.
That’s what Baldwin-Wallace College’s Conservatory of Music, in Berea, Ohio, is taking on this winter. Victoria Bussert, director of the music-theater program, is staging them both next month with a cast of 70 students from the music-theater and voice departments, 20 of them cross-cast in both productions. About 120 people over all are involved in the two shows.
Bussert said she’d wanted to produce the two works in the same season since she started teaching at Baldwin-Wallace 15 years ago, but that the production rights for Rent became available only a year and half ago. When she started teaching at the college, there were 14 students in the combined musical-theater and vocal-performance programs. Now, she says, there are about 55 in musical theater and 45 in vocal performance, with the programs’ alumni appearing on Broadway over the last 13 years in shows including Spider-Man, Memphis, The Scottsboro Boys, and A Little Night Music, and in a touring production of Hair). Baldwin-Wallace was also the first college to produce Phantom of the Opera.
Bohème is being guest-conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, who conducted Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of the opera in 2002. Bussert contacted him through her husband, a Broadway music director, hoping Kitsopoulos could recommend a conductor. Within an hour, Bussert says, Kitsopoulos was on board himself.
Bussert has updated Bohème’s action from the 19th century to the 1930s—partly inspired by the photographer Brassai’s Paris shots of that period—and closer to Rent’s setting in 1990s New York. The two works have parallel plots, and Larson’s music “quotes” from the opera and the characters allude to it. But by narrowing the difference between eras, Russert is underlining the continuity further by making it conceivable, she says, that Bohème figures might still be living during the Rent action. Musetta, in the Puccini opera, reappears as an elderly woman in Rent. The waiter in Bohème’s Café Momus becomes the waiter in Rent’s Life Café. The coat worn by Bohème’s Colline becomes the second-hand coat for Collins in Rent. And so on.
The message beyond the novelty, Bussert says, is that for all the parallels, many opera fans have avoided Rent, and many musical-theater enthusiasts have dodged La Bohème, while anyone who appreciates the genius of the one should revel in that of the other.
If the dual shows instruct in the aesthetic and thematic continuities behind genre contrasts, they also teach logistics on tight turnaround and production on tight budgets. “Students are facing some of the real issues of professional theater production that they don’t face during a normal season,” Bussert says, “such as producing two fall semester shows while building Rent and Bohème for the spring semester.”
The shop crew of 25 students, under the supervision of the theater and dance chair Jeff Herrmann, is building a shared set that can be transformed in two hours. The sets share a scaffolding, but Rent’s proscenium drape is heavy black plastic in caution tape, while Bohème’s is velvet adorned with fringe and gold cording. Charlotte Yetman, an associate professor of theater, is leading a similar number of costumers in outfitting 100 characters, some with costume changes, for Bohème, plus the Rent cast. The second act of Bohème includes eight children, a marching band, and a dog.
The teams are managing all of that on a combined budget of $50,000, Bussert says. It helps, she notes, that all the talent is unpaid. In a college production, you can do things you could never afford to do in a professional theater, she says, like casting 36 actors in Rent as opposed to 18 to 20.
The casts have been rehearsing since mid-September, Rent for a week, Bohème for a week, alternating, with a few run-throughs before the month-long Christmas break. Then a week to pull Rent together, a week to pull Bohème together, and it’s tech time, Herrmann says. (And these follow the college’s fall productions of a new play festival and Moon Over Buffalo.)
Says Bussert: “I sort of like to do things on a big scale.”
For both productions’ performance schedule and ticket information, visit the Baldwin-Wallace site.