Boston Opera Collaborative La Bohème: should opera be presented in smaller venues?

The cultural highlight of our spring here was the Boston Opera Collaborative La Bohème. Part of what made it so great was the comparatively small venue, a craft brewery in Jamaica Plain. Instead of thousands of elderly people falling asleep there were about 60 audience members, at least 20 years younger than the median age for the big opera houses.

The orchestra was small, but didn’t sound thin. (conductor: Beatrice Jona Affron) We have supertitles on flat-screen TVs. The acoustics were remarkably good. Maybe if the hall is small the engineering constraints can be relaxed?

Being so much closer to the singers it was possible to appreciate their acting and also understand more about the technique. The audience was visibly far more engaged than at a big opera venue.

As the audience was younger than at the Met, so too were the singers, all of whom seemed to be in their mid-20s. Fausto Miro and Junhan Choi were wonderful as Rodolfo and Marcello. Abigail Krawczynska was appropriately bewitching as Musetta. Sarah Cooper sang Mimi beautifully.

La Bohème contains a scene that ties right into today’s news. The young attractive Musetta hangs around the elderly rich Alcindoro and extracts cash from him. This role, along with that of Benoit, the confused landlord, was acted and sung well by Matthew Stansfield, but he was not convincingly elderly when viewed up close. That’s one limitation of “opera in the small”: the performers need to match the roles more closely than when the average audience member is 200′ away.

One suburban couple: “We would go to opera every night if it were like this.”

Readers: What do you think? In an age where everything can be captured and streamed, as with the excellent Metropolitan Opera performances in movie theaters, would it make sense to say that live opera should be done in small halls? This might be the only way to keep the art form vibrant for the next generation.


9 thoughts on “Boston Opera Collaborative La Bohème: should opera be presented in smaller venues?

  1. The only problem I have with this post is that you used one of those notoriously vague words (“vibrant”) without defining it. For the record, what does “vibrant” mean in this context?

  2. What does “vibrant” mean for an art form? Let’s see… growing audience, innovation in productions (if not entirely new operas then at least new stagings and/or tweaks), and financial stability so that you can keep doing it. So TV is a vibrant art form because there are lots of new series being produced and people watch them and they make enough money to do the next batch without having to beg for donations.

  3. > One suburban couple: “We would go to opera every night if it were like this.”

    And my next question is… what were the ticket prices? Small venues are great artistically, but dividing the production’s cost by the a smaller number of paying audience members is a challenge.

    (Boheme is one of my favorites, not least of which for the ‘I’m dying of consumption- here, let me sing an aria about it’ moment.)

  4. You’d better be careful with doing this opera thing. Very soon attending an opera performance would easily grant one the deplorable status:

    “Opera the most misogynistic art form” (

    “They stab themselves, throw themselves on funeral pyres, go mad and die. From Aida to Lulu, opera is extravagantly cruel to its female characters. Isn’t it time the divas were free to sing to their own tune?”

    “the patriarchy makes sure that the women are marked out for special cruelty. Opera, and especially 19th century opera, allows dangerous women to coruscate thrillingly on the stage for a few short hours – then murders them.”

    Ballet is apparently “an even more troubling genre”:

    “Some years previously I had been taken to see Giselle at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London. In the interval a kind adult asked, “Are you enjoying it?” Violently, I replied, “No!”

    Thank God, prog-realism art, the rightful heir of socialist realism art, is here to help:

    “The theater must have an ethical and social function”. Therefore, the “fiery Carmen no longer dies at the hand of her rejected lover Don Jose whom she has abandoned for a bullfighter but pulls a gun on him”.

    “Comrade Stalin has called our writers engineers of human souls. What does this mean? What duties does the title confer upon you? In the first place, it means knowing life so as to be able to depict it […] not simply as “objective reality,” but to depict reality in its revolutionary development.”

  5. I fail to see how small scale opera can be financially viable. With singers and orchestra, the audience to cast ratio is close to 1:1? So at best each struggling musician walks home at end of the night with $60? I hope they’re not hungry after the show. Most professional musicians I run into have all but given up on making meaningful money from live gigs.
    Even in the old glory days, opera and most other fine arts were largely financed by Kings. Maybe we should round up all the billionaires and enroll them in opera appreciation camp.

  6. “60 patrons paying $30-60 each.”

    So maybe $2700 ticket income, seven piece orchestra plus conductor and eight person cast…. well, it is an opera about being young and penniless! Maybe there is a grant or patron providing some backing in addition to the ticket net.

    I’m very glad it’s happening. I’ve just been involved in enough community theater productions where the struggle is just to break even with free labor- making this stuff happen takes a lot of passion and perseverance.

    On the other side, a professional classical musician friend just did her taxes, and remarked that it was a pain to deal with 40ish W-2’s and 1099’s between her and her husband- you really have to hustle to make a living in the arts. Makes me glad to have music as an avocation rather than a vocation!

  7. Les, Zoran: If people love the group so much that they make donations that can still be “financial stability”. The problem with some of the “big opera” groups is that they spend so much that they would need Bill Gates as a patron to stay afloat (maybe they could snare him if they moved to Africa?). went bankrupt in 2013 after spending like crazy. If you don’t have a huge hall you don’t have to spend so much that you need billionaires as donors.

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