Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 2005

It was the first opera he ever saw, the first opera he ever directed and the first opera performed by his company. Now, to conclude the San Diego Opera’s 40th anniversary season, general director Ian Campbell directs the work that’s perhaps nearest and dearest to his heart: Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.

“I was 16 when I first saw La Bohème,” says the ever-impassioned Campbell, “and it changed my life. Instead of becoming a lawyer, as I’d planned, I became an opera singer.”

He spent several years in the first national opera company in his native Australia, and in 1981, directed La Bohème for the State Opera of Southern Australia. Now it’s all come full cycle.

Campbell knows why La Bohème, which premiered in 1896, is one of the most popular and most performed operas. The reasons, he says, are both musical and dramatic.

“Puccini had a genius for melody. And his story isn’t about kings or queens, princes or potentates. They’re people like you and me, who fall in and out of love. Everyone sees something of themselves somewhere on that stage. And I don’t think there’s a more clearly told story in opera. It all happens in linear fashion, between Christmas eve and spring. It’s a wonderful mix of romance and tragedy.”

The story focuses on the beautiful but consumptive Mimi, a sickly seamstress who finds true (if stormy) love with the struggling poet, Rodolfo. There’s a parallel love story in the volatile relationship between Musetta, the flirt, and Marcello, the jealous painter. The characters are all starving, freezing artists living the Bohemian life (“la vie bohème”) in the lively Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s. Based on incidents from Henri Murger’s novel, “Scènes de la vie de Bohème,” the opera spawned the rock musical, Rent, and the hip, young Broadway version of La Bohème, directed by filmmaker Baz Luhrmann.

“It has such depth of emotion,” Campbell says. “Mimi and Rodolfo love each other so much, but they can’t live together. They can’t find a way to work through their issues. If they were living today, they’d be going to see a psychologist. But he doesn’t even have enough money for a doctor to save her life. It ends, of course, in tragedy.

“I’m not going to do anything clever or bizarre with the piece. I want people to focus on the story. Even if it’s somebody’s first time seeing La Bohème, they’ll have no trouble following the plot or feeling the emotions. I want them to cry — repeatedly.”

Tugging at onlookers’ heartstrings will be tenor Richard Leech as Rodolfo and soprano Fabiana Bravo as Mimi. A long-time friend of Campbell’s and a frequent performer at San Diego Opera, Leech has played Rodolfo many times. Bravo is new to her coveted role; Campbell loves to discover and encourage fresh talent. He’s certain that his current production of La Bohème will be quite different from his first one.

“I think that one was a bit superficial, a little naïve,” he admits. “I don’t think I was capable then of getting into the souls of people; now, with added years and maturity, I see a far greater sadness in the piece, even though it is often rollicking fun. It may be dark, but there’s some optimism at the end. Mimi and Rodolfo are reconciled. And I’m convinced that Marcello and Musetta stay together, despite all their conflict.”

In order to convey all the nuances of the text, Campbell has written the supertitles himself.

“I know enough Italian to get as close to a direct translation as I can manage, while still maintaining the poetry of Puccini.”

In the forty years of the San Diego Opera (during 22 of which Campbell has been at the helm), La Bohème has been the second most performed opera (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is first). This is the tenth production of Bohème, and Campbell and Company are targeting a new audience, including a “Student Ticket Initiative” to attract the college crowd, and the usual student-invited dress rehearsal, which accommodates 2000 attendees, age 10 through high school.

“Kids love opera,” asserts Campbell. “Because no one’s told them they aren’t supposed to. No one told them opera is ‘all about fat ladies with horns singing their lungs out.’ They’ve never heard voices like this, without amplification, with spectacle and a live orchestra. We keep the curtain up and show them what goes on behind the scenes. They’re fascinated by the technical stuff, too.”

“We want to attract new people to the broad expanse of musical theater,” Campbell says. “That you can tell a story in song. We’ve made the opera experience more audience-friendly. We have a range of prices, we have supertitle translations. And it’s no longer a black tie affair. Anyone who likes music can enjoy opera. And this is one opera everyone can fall in love with.”

[La Bohème runs for five performances, May 7-15; 619-533-7000;

For more about La Bohème, tune in to “At the Opera with Ian Campbell” on KPBS radio (89.5FM), Sunday, May 1 at 7pm. And watch “Opera Talk” and “Opera Spotlight” on UCSD-TV, hosted by the Opera’s Geisel Director of Education, Nicolas Reveles.]

©2005 Patté Productions Inc.