‘La bohème’ being reshaped for San Diego Opera’s pandemic-era drive-in show

San Diego Opera's "La boheme"
(R. Black illustration / Courtesy of San Diego Opera)

To accommodate social distancing rules, Puccini’s beloved classic will have a different time setting and no chorus


Over the past 55 years, Giacomo Puccini’s beloved opera “La bohème” has helped San Diego Opera mark some historic milestones.

It was the opera that introduced the newfound company to San Diego on May 5, 1965. And it was the first opera the company produced after being saved from near-closure in 2014. Now it’s returning for another major moment in the organization’s history: Its rebirth after a seven-month closure due to COVID-19.

On Saturday evening in the parking lot at Pechanga Arena, San Diego Opera will open its 2020-21 season with one of the nation’s first-ever drive-in opera productions. Nationally known singers will perform a slimmed-down version of “La bohème” with costumes and sets on an elevated stage, alongside conductor Rafael Payare, San Diego Symphony’s music director, and 24 of the symphony’s musicians. Cameras will capture the singers in close-ups that will be projected, along with supertitles, on large video screens nearby, and a special sound system will transmit the singers’ voices to the FM radios of the vehicles lined up for the show.

Since the pandemic struck in March, nearly all of the nation’s major opera companies have gone into hibernation. The Metropolitan Opera in New York won’t reopen until fall 2021. San Francisco Opera, Dallas Opera and Houston Grand Opera aim to reopen next spring. And Seattle Opera, L.A. Opera and Fort Worth Opera are shooting for early 2021.

But San Diego Opera is among a small group of companies experimenting this fall with outside-the-box live productions in outdoor stadiums and parking lots. Since its resurrection under new leadership six years ago, the company has reinvented itself as a smaller, more innovative and more inclusive arts organization that aims to bring more opera out of the downtown Civic Theatre and into the communities where people live.

San Diego Opera General Director David Bennett said he and his artistic team spent several months planning, budgeting, fundraising and negotiating with city, county and labor union leaders to make the parking-lot project happen. He was inspired to give it a try after seeing the success of Mainly Mozart’s drive-in concerts at the Del Mar Fairgrounds this summer.

“‘Bohème’ has taken a lot of work, but it’s been really good for staff to have something to work on and to stretch themselves. It’s been a very good process,” Bennett said.

To help underwrite the drive-in “Bohème,” the company turned to local arts patron Darlene Marcos Shiley, who has been a major funder of the company’s highly successful 4-year-old Detour series of small, edgier chamber operas. In an email, Marcos Shiley said she was initially skeptical of the drive-in idea when she was first approached for underwriting but said: “These are unusual and difficult times that call for innovation, so I made the leap of faith.”

A classic reimagined

This will be San Diego Opera’s 12th “La bohème.” In the past, it was often a vehicle to bring major stars to San Diego, including Luciano Pavarotti in 1980, Patricia Racette in 1995 and Piotr Beczala in 2010. This “La bohème” will also feature a big star, internationally acclaimed soprano Ana María Martínez, who stepped in to replace Angel Blueafter she withdrew earlier this month for personal reasons. But this production will likely be best remembered for how it is being staged.

To accommodate social distancing rules required by the singers’ labor union, director Keturah Stickann has rethought how to reimagine Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera about starving artists living, loving and dying in the Latin Quarter of 1840s Paris.

Soprano Ana Maria Martinez
Soprano Ana Maria Martinez will sing the role of Mimi in San Diego Opera’s drive-in production of “La boheme” opening Oct. 24.
(Courtesy of Tom Specht)

“Places like San Diego Opera are thinking outside the boxes. I have so much respect for them. Talk about walking straight into the fire,” said Stickann, a Tennessee-based director whose last appearance with the company was Puccini’s “Turandot” in 2018. “It’s a huge experiment, but I think it’s what we have to do right now.”

“La bohème” is based on French writer Henri Murger’s 1851 episodic novel “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème.” It follows the lives of four young men — a poet who is Murger’s alter-ego, a painter, a musician and a philosopher — and the women they love and leave over several years.

Puccini’s opera condenses the story into just one year and focuses primarily on two relationships: The doomed love story of Rodolfo the poet and Mimi, a sickly seamstress, and the fiery relationship between Marcello the painter and Musetta the singer. The opera is most famous for two first-act arias where Rodolfo and Mimi fall instantly in love when their hands touch in a dark room.

But under COVID-19 union guidelines, such intimacy is now impossible. Each singer requires 120 square feet of space around them onstage, including 15 feet in front of their mouths and 4 feet on either side. So Stickann had to figure out how to direct the story, without changing the libretto, in a way that makes theatrical sense. For the answer, she went back to Murger’s book.

“I realized it was broken into a lot of tiny memory stories of people he came into contact with. I thought, what if Rodolfo was writing these stories 10 years in the future, after Mimi has died?” Stickann said. “There’s this notion of the nature of memories that can be so vivid we can almost step into them. We can hear someone’s voice and see them in our mind’s eye, but the one thing we can’t do with a memory is touch it.”

San Diego Symphony’s Rafael Payare teams with San Diego Opera for the first time

Oct. 18, 2020

In Stickann’s version, Rodolfo will be writing in his study as the opera begins and the story will move through space and time with lighting and other theatrical effects to single out the characters. Mimi will be a ghostly presence who haunts Rodolfo’s memories.

Because choirs aren’t allowed under social-distancing rules, the adult and children’s choruses featured in Act Two have been cut, which helps take the show’s running time down to about 90 minutes.

The San Diego Symphony has also been reduced in size to 24 players to comply with current industry practices requiring 6 feet between all masked players in strings, harp and percussion and 12 feet between woodwind players, brass players and the conductor. Many musicians will perform behind custom-made plexiglass shields.

Tickets to the shows will be sold by the carload, at $200 for as many people as there are seatbelts per vehicle. For premium parking, car tickets are $300. Attendees will be required to stay in their vehicles during the performance, except for masked trips to the bathroom, and applause will only be allowed at the end with clapping and car horn toots.

Company spokesman Edward Wilensky said the company’s goal is to attract 2,500 vehicles over the four-night run. Subscribers who purchased tickets to what was originally planned as an indoor production at the San Diego Civic Theatre this month will have first priority for parking and they already account for 40 percent of the company’s sales goal.

Stickann said she hopes families and first-time opera-goers will give the drive-in “La bohème” a try.

“I think this particular experience will be its own thing. At the very least, it will be a novel experience,” she said. “‘Bohème’ is glorious, beautiful music. It’s a tale we’re all dealing with right now, not being able to touch each other and living in memory. It will touch us all on a relevant note.”

Singing with new colors

San Diego Opera’s production will star Martínez as Mimi and tenor Joshua Guerrero as Rodolfo. Also starring in the production are soprano Andrea Carroll as Musetta; baritone Alexander Elliott as Marcello; baritone Robert Mellon as the singer Schaunard; bass Colin Ramsey as the philosopher Colline and bass-baritone Scott Sikon as Alcindoro.

This will be Guerrero’s third engagement with San Diego Opera in less than a year. In December, he performed a dual recital with soprano Ailyn Pérez, and on March 4, he returned as part of the Bel Canto Trio. Six days later, the pandemic’s arrival forced San Diego Opera to go dark.

Opera tenor Joshua Guerrero
Joshua Guerrero, a Los Angeles-based tenor, will perform the role of Rodolfo in San Diego Opera’s drive-in “La boheme” opening Oct. 24.
(Courtesy photo)

While COVID-19 cost Guerrero several jobs this summer, the 37-year-old Los Angeles singer said he was grateful for the extended rest after nearly six years on the road without a break.

“For me, it was a way to unplug,” he said. “I made my peace with not singing for upwards of a year. I think that was the best thing I could’ve done for myself. It helped me remember my identity that I’m not just Joshua Guerrero the singer. I’m many other things.”

Guerrero spent the time off remodeling his home near North Hollywood, practicing piano and guitar, setting up his home music studio, doing some voice-over work and spending more time with friends and family. It was a needed respite, Guerrero said, since he has work lined up in Europe for at least two to three years beginning in 2021.

Guerrero said he’s excited about Stickann’s directorial concept for Rodolfo.

“What’s really beautiful about this is this is going to be Rodolfo’s moment of closure,” he said. “He’s making his peace with the guilt associated with Mimi’s death.”

Des Moines Metro Opera's "La boheme."
Joshua Guerrero and Julie Adams play star-crossed lovers Rodolfo and Mimi in Des Moines Metro Opera’s 2019 production of “La boheme.” He returns to the role Oct. 24 in San Diego.
(Courtesy photo)

Guerrero said he’s both nervous and excited about the drive-in production. Singing outdoors can have its challenges, and so can singing into a microphone, since most operas are performed without amplification. But Guerrero started out as a cabaret singer, so he’s comfortable with a mike.

“There’s always the anxiety that plagues an opera singer when you throw amplification into the mix, but I have a better understanding of microphone singing,” he said. “You can use different colors and textures in your voice when you’re off the body (miked) and there are beautiful pianissimi notes that are slightly easier to sing when we have some help from the mike.”

Guerrero said he’s curious how it will be singing to cars, rather than people, and how the audience will be able to show their appreciation. But however it works out, he’s excited to star in one of the first drive-in opera productions in America.

“Whether it’s a huge success or a failure, I think it’s wonderful they’re attempting to give this to the community,” Guerrero said. “We are all longing for that connection that can only be found in crowds.”

“La bohème”

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 27, Oct. 30 and Nov. 1.

Where: Pechanga Arena San Diego parking lot, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., San Diego

Tickets: $200 per carload; $300 for priority parking