Friday, October 03, 2008


(The Greatest Love Story Ever Sung)

RENT-head (or RENThead), n : someone who is obsessed with, or at least a very big fan of Jonathan Larson's rock opera RENT.

I certainly consider myself a RENT-head. It is my favorite stage musical, having watched it 4X in total, and having listened to the 2-CD original cast recording more times than i could remember ("Another Day" and "Without You" being my favorite songs).

Hence, my excitement at watching the Philippine Opera Company's first full-length opera production, La Boheme, on which RENT was loosely based on. After all, this was the original source material for RENT. . . the mother spaceship, so to speak.

For a brief synopsis of La Boheme, and comparisons between it and RENT, please check out Karla Gutierrez's (POC Artistic and Managing Director) Multiply site and this link from Our Awesome Planet. The plot is more or less the same, with the names a bit changed: Marcello is Mark, Rodolfo is Roger, Colline is Collins, Schaunard is Angel, Benoit is Benny, Musetta is Maureen, and Mimi is. . .well, Mimi.

I corralled my caustically witty friend Wd. to watch the opening night with me, although i must admit some misgivings entered in my mind. After all, who really watches opera in this country? Cultured geriatric high-society types, of course, but who else?

I guess that by staging La Boheme, the POC was trying to capture a broader and younger audience for opera. And La Boheme was the logical thing to stage, since its storyline was familiar to the numerous RENT-heads like me.

So there we were on opening night, perched on the front row of Balcony Center, looking down below and scanning to see how big the audience turnout would be.

Initial results were not encouraging. Wd. and i estimated that at the start of the opera, only 40% of the Orchestra and Balcony seats were filled. The Parterre boxes, in particular, were virtually empty.

On to the show. National Artist Bencab's presence was acknowledged; Helen Quach, the conductress of the orchestra, was introduced, and La Boheme duly began.

Unfortunately, this is where things kinda fall downhill. From our section at Balcony Center, the sound was rather weak and the actors' faces were barely recognizable. No matter, i thought, i was intimately familiar with the plot anyway, and should have no problems following along.

But try as i might, the arias sung in Italian proved to be too much.
The novelty wore off after a few minutes, and my mind started drifting off to mundane matters, like whether i prefer to eat peanut butter or strawberry jam for tomorrow's breakfast, that sort of thing.

Something does really get lost in translation, in my opinion. There is something to be said for knowing the ongoing dialogue
line by line.

We didn't know exactly what the actors were gesticulating about at any one moment. For example, in Act 2, Mimi was standing and embracing Rodolfo. What was she exactly singing about? Professing her undying love towards him? In what way? Or was she merely instructing him to order for her the pancit canton? WHAT?!!?

The bloggers who had attended the special preview/dress rehearsal night on Oct. 1st gave generally high marks, one of them even writing that “the fact that the show is conducted in Italian does not detract from its enjoyment. Music is the only true universal language and Italian, one of the most mellifluous, romantic, and beautiful languages in the world, certainly does not hurt the show, either.”

Sorry to rain on everyone's parade, but really?! I feel like a dunce who forgot the password to Alibaba's cave when i say this, but really?!?

I really wish the POC decided to make use of opera supertitles (i.e. simultaneous English translation of the libretto on a horizontal video screen somewhere above the stage) for La Boheme. It would have made it much easier to understand and appreciate what exactly was going on during each act.

(I had watched 'The Romance of Magno Rubio' a few years ago at CCP Little Theater, staged in Filipino, and they did have English supertitles) Granted, while supertitles make it easier for the audience to follow the storyline, they can distract from the performers, as excellently discussed in this article from the New York Times
here, titled "So That's What The Fat Lady Sang".

Let me put it this way: The perfect audience for La Boheme would have been people who could understand and/or speak Italian, not people like me whose command of the language is limited to "ciao", "grazie" and "pizza quatro formaggio".

But since only a tiny minority in the audience likely understood Italian, and not everyone can relate to two hours of singing in a foreign language they cannot comprehend, the POC would have been much better served by accommodating majority of its audience through the use of supertitles.

All in all, our eager anticipation at the start of Act 1 turned into restlessness by Act 2, then to tedium in Act 3; and by Act 4, Wd. and i were flat-out bored. It just seemed like the thing wasn't simply going to end, and Mimi was taking so long to die (oops, sorry for the spoiler!)

I was already having fantasies of rapelling down from the balcony ala Tom Cruise in 'Mission Impossible', and sticking an imaginary balisong into Mimi, to put an end to her suffering AND MY misery.

Wonder of wonders though, when La Boheme ended and the lights came on, roughly 80% of the seats were filled by then.

(Check out for updates on future productions)


During Act 1:

Guy seated at row behind us (in Fookien dialect, and in a lecturing tone of voice), to his female companion: "You don't come to see them [actors] act, just to listen to the singing...."

During Act 2:

Same guy seated behind us (in Fookien): "There's just one good song in this opera."
- perhaps he was referring to Musetta's Waltz?

Woman seated at row beside us, to her companion (in Fookien): "I heard that the star gets paid PHP2,000 to PHP3,000 per night." - could this be true?

During Act 3: (while Musetta and Marcello are kissing and groping each other)

Woman seated at row behind us (in Fookien, and in a shocked voice): "Is that [kissing and groping] real? Really? Hah..." (sharp intake of breath)

During Act 4:

Woman seated 2 rows behind us: "ZZZZZZZZZ" [snoring, in perfect Italian]


Mike-mike said...

di kasi tayo cultured - hehe

TheBachelorGirl said...

HAHA! This is so funny! Love it! I also took note of the funny things people said on opening night. Buti na lang they were speaking in Tagalog and/or English, otherwise, I wouldn't have understood. Lost in translation... ;)

Can you please post a comment on my blog with a link to this? Thank you!

Anonymous said...

oh no! My sister just asked if I wanted free tickets. Should I pass up? :)

Dindo Jimenez said...

hahaha! grabe ur so right, actually my seatmate wasn't having an imaginary balisong... he was stabbing mimi with his finger... die pls..pls! he he... 3k for listening to my top 6 La boheme aria could have bought me several CD versions ;p However I must admit Gary is really a world class tenor, Jennifer Uy (who probably sold tickets to those fookien-speaking geriatric patrons) was quite amazing for a local talent... Bottom line, sana it was co-produced with Rep, would have made a big difference!!

Eric said...

i hate to say "i told you so", but "I TOLD YOU SO!!!" ;-D

maybe i'll try to catch La Boheme the next time Met Opera stages it.

grumpyurbanslacker said...

hey mike-mike,

sad, but true :D

hey bachelor girl,

sure, no problem! i just hope those bloggers who got teary-eyed, etc. despite not understanding a word of Italian don't lambast me as a Neanderthal! haha.

hey mylene,

hmmm.....well, going to the opera is a new experience, so why not? But at least you're forewarned.

hey dindo,

hay naku, our part at the Balcony was full of Chinese people who DIDN'T KNOW what La Boheme was all about! As in you could hear them whispering during the entire show.
Tapos, they clap so enthusiastically at the end of each Act!

hey eric,

touche! :D

Regina said...

I must say that this is one of your funnier blogs :p. I can just imagine you bored out of your mind picking your teeth or nose...
But i agree with you, supertitles would help especially if you want to bring opera to the mainstream (and to philistines like us). I remember watching a Beijing opera with translation and that made the experience more enjoyable, methinks.

Anonymous said...

i admit i was one of those who cried in the last act. i thought the Mimi was quite amazing, too. She seemed like she knew what she was singing about which helped me understand the story more.

the interaction between her and rodolfo was touching.