February 1: La bohème

La BohemeIt was on this day in 1896 that Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera La bohème premiered.

The opera was based on Henri Murger’s novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème, which wasn’t so much a novel in the traditional sense as it was actually a collection of interconnected short stories. The book focused on the lives of young bohemians living in Paris’ Latin Quarter in the 1840s. In 1849, Murger teamed with dramatist Théodore Barrière to adapt the book into a play. Specifically, they focused on the doomed love of Rodolfo and Mimì which [Spoiler Alert!] ends in her death from consumption.

Puccini wanted to adapt the play into an opera, but there was just one small problem; rival composer Ruggero Leoncavallo was also planning an operatic version of La bohème. Even worse, Leoncavallo had already completed his libretto, so Puccini was forced to defer to Leoncavallo. However, Leoncavallo’s La bohème was a massive failure, so Puccini thought the time was right for him to try where Leoncavallo had failed.

The premier of Puccini’s La bohème was held in Turin at the Teatro Regio, with young conductor Arturo Toscanini at the baton. The opera was a hit and soon many Italian opera companies were mounting their own productions. Interestingly, the first production outside of Italy was held just a few short months later in Buenos Aires, Argentina in June of 1896. Over the next few years, productions of La bohème were performed all over the world: In Alexandria, Lisbon, Moscow, Manchester, London, Los Angeles, New York City, Berlin and Paris. Friends, I must say that as an L. A. native, I take a bit of pride in the fact that in 1897 little ol’ Los Angeles staged a production of this landmark cultural work before either New York or Paris.

La bohème continued to be popular into the 20th century and remains an operatic staple to this day. In 1946, Toscanini was the music director and conductor for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and so to celebrate the opera’s 50th anniversary, he arranged for a special concert version of La bohème to be broadcast on the NBC radio network. Thankfully, this performance was recorded, making it the only recording of a Puccini opera to feature its original conductor, a feat that’s rare for many classic operas.

Unsurprisingly, there is a cocktail called La Boheme. It’s a fascinating concoction that balances several disparate flavors: Start with a simple Vodka Cranberry cocktail. and then add some black raspberry liqueur and elderflower liqueur to make this more of a cocktail for adults; or perhaps more bohemian.

La Boheme

  • 1 ounce Vodka
  • 1 1/2 ounce cranberry juice
  • 1/2 ounce Black Raspberry Liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce Elderflower Liqueur

Shake all ingredients together and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Tomorrow: The real Robinson Crusoe.
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