In May 2012, Peter Kazaras sat in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, surrounded by his UCLA students, observing a dress rehearsal of Puccini’s La Bohème at LA Opera. During a break, Kazaras asked his students, “When is this production set?” The students hesitated. He continued, “Where is the production set?” They responded, “Paris!” Yet, they still couldn’t determine the time period. Kazaras smiled, pointing out the half-formed Eiffel Tower structure in the background of Act I. He watched the lightbulbs go off, as his students suddenly realized that it must be set in the 1880s, when the Eiffel Tower was under construction. It was in this moment that all Kazaras’s teachings about the importance of design came full circle for his students. Kazaras beamed with pride.
Four years later, Kazaras once again comes face to face with this production – this time in the director’s chair.
Kazaras, who has recently directed La Bohème at both Washington National Opera and Dallas Opera, knows the piece well. However, LA Opera’s production, originally conceived by film director Herbert Ross in 1993, presents its own set of challenges. “It’s like being given a legal brief that you have to study thoroughly so that you can really understand the facts,” says Kazaras, alluding to his earlier profession as a lawyer. This is because Kazaras has inherited some key elements of the production (ie. set, props and costumes) Ross. Kazaras’s challenge is working with Ross’s gigantic and impressive set, while still adding his own directorial stamp on the show.
Many of his choices will be made long before the first rehearsal. For example, Kazaras must determine how he is going to use the set in Act I (including a general idea of where the performers will stand and move), what the lighting will be for the act, and how both of these choices illustrate the story’s larger themes. In this act, which takes place inside the artists’ garret and on the surrounding rooftops, Kazaras wants to showcase the characters’ poverty. This is in stark contrast with Act II, when the characters are eating and drinking at a busy outdoor café. These two acts illustrate the different worlds that the characters straddle. The world of Act I showcases the poverty of a struggling artist existence. Act II is the point at which the struggling artists meet wealthier characters. It’s the world of the bourgeoisie. Kazaras’s directorial choices serve this distinction, while supporting Puccini’s romantic and luscious score.
Once Kazaras has made all the directorial choices that can be made before the start of rehearsals, it’s time to begin working with the performers. When it comes to performance, character specificity is key. “My goal is to make sure that everyone has their eye on their own internal bouncing ball all the time, understanding that they have an extremely difficult job of singing, but also knowing that they can both sing and act,” says Kazaras. He went back to the Henri Murger novel (Scènes de la vie de bohème) that inspired the Puccini opera, and he discovered some interesting character details. For instance, in Act II, Mimi sees a gorgeous coral necklace for sale; Rodolfo tells her that once his rich uncle perishes, he will be able to buy her many coral necklaces. This is a small detail in the opera, but upon reading the novel, Kazaras was pleased to learn that Rodolfo really does have a rich uncle. A singer who is aware of that detail will play the line differently than a singer who believes Rodolfo is merely dreaming of the riches he might have one day.
While audiences might think there are no surprises in La Bohème – after all, it’s one of the most frequently performed operas – Kazaras disagrees. He works hard to make each La Bohème he directs fresh and relevant. But, La Bohème has truly stood the test of time. When asked why, Kazaras answers that “it’s a work of art and there’s stuff in the opera that’s really potent and relevant. It’s about love. It’s about sexual attraction. It’s about fate. It stays relevant, because no matter how old human beings are when they fall in love, or when they feel attracted to somebody, or when they fall in lust, they can believe all sorts of things are possible that can never be possible. The capacity for romantic fantasy is always with us, which in its way is kind of great.” It also makes the opera incredibly relatable to Kazaras, to cast members, to audience members, and even to the students whom Kazaras brought to that dress rehearsal years ago, who have probably met their own versions of Mimi and Rodolfo at some LA nightclub.