How I Learned to Love Opera

I was taken to the opera in 1987 by a friend. We were in Berlin. We had tickets to see La Boheme at the Komische Oper. I had never seen La Boheme, I didn’t even know the story (though I could have a guess, it was an opera, after all.) I hated opera.

My friend and I had a row at the interval. It was rubbish, could he not see that? Of course he could. No he couldn’t. What? Give me a break. No, give him. Those scenes in which we are expected to believe that they are all having a great time in the cafe. Because real people ALWAYS swing their drinking cups in time with one another, all facing in the same direction, some with one foot up on a stool to show they are having a good time in a cafe, don’t they? Don’t they? That is hardly the point. No you get over YOURself.

There were other travesties, mainly opera singers in love with their opera singing. My friend denied it. I was looking for these sins. Hard to avoid them when you’re facing a stage full of people tripping all over them. Didn’t I even like the music? Yes of course, some of it was even famous, big deal, but I had a walkman – the visuals were less distracting. I wasn’t going back in. I was. No I wasn’t, I’d sit in the bar. I bloody was. I bloody wasn’t.

And that was where my friend took the wheel. You do not sit through HALF of La Boheme. There was no argument because if I did not see it all there would be no argument. I was kind of loving the argument.

So we went back in. Rhetorical folding of arms.

I can’t remember the Third Act, but this is how I remember the Fourth Act. I don’t speak German so this is what I understood and remember.

In the Fourth Act, they, the couple we hope for, are reunited. Mimi and Rodolpho.

They have been apart, now here they are. She has consumption. He has betrayed her, he was frightened by her illness, her fragility. She is very unwell. They are together. Everything will be all right. Now at last it really will.

Their friends leave to sell something precious to buy her medicine. It is cold in the bare room where Rodolpho and Mimi are left with each other.

He loves her. They love each other and they can’t help but say it together. They want nothing now but to be together saying that simple thing again and again in a bare room forever. She is tired. He is not. He is full of life and full of her and everything will be all right. They are in love. Nothing has ever made so much sense. He says this. It makes a lot of sense to him. She smiles.

She is very still but he is almost dancing for the joy of being with her again. Maybe she smiles again. She will get better and they have the rest of time. The friends return, for some reason a muff is placed in Mimi’s lap. At least her hands can be warm.

And Rodolpho approaches her but even when he touches her she does not move. She is gone.

He screams her name. The orchestra goes mad. He screams again but she does not move. He does not sob and quiver, he just drops, screaming and the orchestra tells the rest.

She is dead. That was their time.

I was a mess. When we finally got there, to the last Act, I was him. She would not die. Because she would not. Because happiness. Surely. I couldn’t even clap.

I think we went for a drink. I don’t think we talked about it much at all. Since then I have tried to listen to La Boheme but there is not a recording in which the last Act is not a mess of consumptive coughing and operatic sobs. What we saw at the Komische Oper (and Barrie knew this, he insisted Harry Kupfer was the director to trust) was clean of all that acting. There is no need to help Puccini, of all people, along.

I daren’t see it again. I may never.