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What moves me:

Should they really always be suffering?

Offenbach’s LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN and Puccini’s LA BOHEME are considered classic examples of the ‘opera about artists’. But what do they tell us about how art materialises?

La bohème
Opera by Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Giacomo Sagripanti / Daniel Carter 
Director: Götz Friedrich
With Attilio Glaser / Andrei Danilov, Philipp Jekal , Thomas Lehman / Noel Bouley, Tobias Kehrer, Mariangela Sicilia / Ekaterina Siurina, Elena Tsallagova / Alexandra Hutton et al.
13, 19, 20, 23, 26 October 2019

Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Opera by Jacques Offenbach
Conductor: Daniel Carter 
Director: Laurent Pelly
With Marc Laho, Heather Engebretson, Byung Gil Kim et al.
24, 30 October; 8 November 2019

First there is the frustration. Marcello just cannot seem to find his flow in the large-size picture of the parting of the Red Sea that he is working on. And the irritated artist lets us know all about it at the start of LA BOHEME. Then there is Rodolfo, a poet, who shares the garret with Marcello and whose sprawling plays are good only as fuel for their stove – so, not much in terms of success and creativity; Giacomo Puccini is presenting us with a group of losers, would-be artists whose main talents seem to consist in somehow making ends meet. The action takes place over a period of six months and at the end of the story they have still not achieved anything artistic worth mentioning.

In actual fact Puccini’s masterpiece, which premiered in 1896, is a good example of how generations of romanticisation by operagoers can falsify the original character of a work of art. Not just Puccini’s opera but even the work it was based on, Henri Murger’s »Scènes de la vie de bohème«, had nothing to do with nostalgia but rather depicted – often with shocking frankness – the tough struggle for survival facing young people in 1840s Paris. And Puccini, too, would have known that unheated attic quarters – even in Montmartre – offer very limited romantic appeal. The myth that LA BOHEME explodes completely, however, is the idea of the carefree artist, doodling his days away and, by virtue of his self-imposed outsider status, staying aloof from square, bourgeois society and thereby managing to execute great works of art.

An idea that persists to this day and continues to serve as the basis for art: artists are expected to lead lives of excess as a prerequisite for creating masterpieces, as the painter Jörg Immendorff did, holding his legendary cocaine parties. And, ideally, they should die prematurely, having stuffed themselves full of barbiturates – like Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

The prototype of this idealised operatic figure appeared a few short years prior to the premiere of LA BOHEME: the eponymous hero of Jacques Offenbach’s LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN is the archetype of an artist searching for – and finding – his inspiration in a state of intoxication. Even though we realise in the end that Hoffmann the poet has made a mess of his social life and gets abandoned by the very people who were hanging on his words a moment before, he still retains his muse, who explains to Hoffmann that these reverses and upsets are part and parcel of what it is to be a great artist.

LA BOHEME takes aim at precisely this kind of idealisation and presents us with multiple artists revelling in their outsider status. The only trouble is: they don’t manage to produce anything! In the first act, for instance, the poet Rodolfo shrugs off his total lack of inspiration for an article he is under pressure to deliver, proffering the lame excuse that he’s “not in the mood” and happy to have his head turned by Mimi, the neighbour, instead. Yet Puccini also shows us why his bohémiens’ half-hearted attempts at art will inevitably come to nothing: it is precisely this taking-things-as-they-come attitude that leads the artists to avoid the very existential experiences and reflections that might find expression in art.