A well-known classical musician once complained about having to struggle explaining his art to a journalist who didn't understand his music. He was almost scornful of the practice of media houses sending “ignorant'' reporters to write on subjects that call for specialised knowledge. And here I was, an opera rookie, face-to-face with one of the world's finest operas: Puccini's La Bohême.
I headed to the venue - Al Qasba in Sharjah on March 12 - hoping this would be my initiation.
And what an initiation it was! A group of vocal wizards was trying to tell a tale of love and sacrifice and tragedy on an open-air stage that looked rather small for its purpose. Barely 20 metres behind the stage is a main street where the ubiquitous heavy vehicles kept coming and going throughout the show which ran a little over two hours. Adding to the din were the vroom factor of a bike gang, police sirens, shrill shrieks of weekend-revellers on boats plying on Al Qasba's inland water network and, of course, curious pedestrians gathered along the footpath of the raised main street.
But as the evening progressed, the European Chamber Opera artists, who were performing La Bohême for the first time in the UAE, rose above it all and ruled.
“It's a superb performance,'' said a friend, who is himself a semi-professional opera singer (tenor) from the Philippines. “The best I have seen, considering it's an open-air show with a minimalist set-up,'' he said, referring to the small stage and the restrained use of audio equipment.
Set in 1830 in France, La Bohême (loosely translated as ‘bohemian lifestyle') is chiefly a love story of a poor young French poet (Rodolfo) and a seamstress (Mimi). The story takes an unexpected twist when Rodolfo decides to leave Mimi for being flirtatious. But in truth he wanted Mimi to find a wealthier suitor after he learnt that she was suffering from a fatal illness, thinking that was only the way she could be better looked after. All of this unfolds before the eyes of the friends of the couple who all play crucial roles in the story – and ends with Mimi's death.
Having familiarised with the characters and the storyline days ahead of the show, it was easy to relate to the emotions being expressed even though it was in a language unknown to me. That's the unmistakable power of opera. To my ears, Rodolfo seemed flawless and Mimi simply dazzled.
Between the acts, my friend would enlighten me on how the performers easily managed to hit perfect notes without losing the resonance. But that much was easily understood as I sought my way deeper into the operatic realm. Also my background in blues and association with jazz and rock – from Muddy Waters to Malmsteen - helped me appreciate the vocal feat I was witnessing.
And when the last act ended with Rodolfo crying over Mimi's lifeless body, the opera aficionados in the audience stood up to extend a heartfelt ovation to the ECHO artists. The applause grew louder when the artists came out for the curtain call. And my friend repeated, “Superb performance''.
The show was sponsored by Coral Beach Resort, Sharjah, supported by Etihad Airways and Arabian Explorers, and organised by Marketing Pro-Junction (MPJ).
Off stage tidbits
The lines of Colline the philosopher, and Schaunard the musician [Rodolfo's friends] were both sung by one artist. Reason? “The stage [at Al Qasba] was too small,'' said Edwin Hawkes of Scotland who played Colline and Shaunard, adding that it was one-fifth the size of the stage they were used to. “So we made it one artist less to prevent overcrowding.''
The content of the opera was modified to some extent in line with the UAE cultural norms. Water, instead of wine or anything resembling wine, was used on stage while a line that should have gone as “champagne on ice'' went as “water on ice''.
There was improvisation backstage too. The artists used the same room for make-up which the catering staff of the evening was using.
The ECHO group was due to perform La Bohême in Sharjah on November 30, 2008, but while on their way back from Japan, they were stranded in Thailand owing to the airport siege by anti-government protesters.