YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Opera Western Reserve’s Nov. 11 production of “La Boheme” will have a lot of familiarity.
It will be the third time OWR has presented the classic Giacomo Puccini piece about a group of struggling artists since it started in 2004, making it the company’s most-produced opera.
The audience will see another familiar face in the return of OWR music director Susan Davenny Wyner, who last appeared in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
Scott Skiba, OWR’s production director, will helm the show, which will feature the return of Rhea Olivacce in the lead role of Mimi.
The OWR production will be the sixth time Skiba has directed the show in his career.
“La Boheme” is the fourth-most produced opera in the repertoire, according to OperaSense.com. The 1896 work about a group of young poets, painters and philosophers who help each other get through tough times was used as the blueprint for the enduring 1996 Broadway musical “Rent.”
Skiba says “La Boheme” stands out because it is a love story, but its strengths extend beyond that.
“It’s about young people finding their way in a world of adversity,” he says. “It speaks to people in a timeless way, and the pacing of it is fairly quick. One doesn’t have to be an opera fan to enjoy any opera if it’s well done, but ‘La Boheme’ lends itself well to the present day.”
As a work of art itself, Skiba says “La Boheme” has an inherent chemistry between the characters and the music.
“And it’s music that everyone knows,” he continues. “It’s used in a lot of commercials. You will know a lot of it even if you think you don’t.”
Davenny Wyner says it’s always a good time to stage this opera.
“La Boheme being such a poignant and enduring story,” she says, “it’s a favorite with audiences. So, it makes sense to draw us all together into the hall again with this opera and this big production.”
Davenny Wyner calls the cast “marvelous,” and says the visual effects and staging being employed will only heighten the story’s ability to stir emotions.
And then there’s the music.
“It just never gets old,” she says. “One keeps finding new things in the score – the relation of words and music is so tightly connected. The music fleshes out the thoughts and feelings and even physical gestures of the characters. They spring vividly to life as one just reads the musical score.”
In her long career, Davenny Wyner has developed a familiarity with every note and how the music of “La Boheme” propels the story on stage.
“The people in this story are very real,” she says. “They don’t feel ‘operatic.’ Their pains and joy and feelings speak to us so directly, even though they are being sung… Maybe, especially because they are being sung, we feel them.”
Skiba most recently directed “La Boheme” in 2019 for Cleveland Opera Theater, which gives him a leg up on adapting the show to the Stambaugh stage.
The OWR production will use light projectors and a series of backdrop panels to create the setting and mood.
The cast will be led by Olivacce and OWR newcomer Johnny Kaufman as her love interest, Rodolfo. It will mark the second time Olivacce will perform the role of Mimi for OWR, having last done it the 2016 production, which was also overseen by Skiba.
In addition to her opera career, Olivacce is a professor at Western Michigan State University.
Rounding out the cast are Rachel Copeland as Musetta, Andre Chang as Marcello, Dan Ewart as Colline, Brian Johnson as Schaunard and Jason Budd as Benoit/Alcindoro.
“La Boheme” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $75 to $25. Go to stambaughauditorium.com or call 330 259 9651.
Pictured at top: Rhea Olivacce and Johnny Kaufman will lead the cast of OWR’s “La Boheme.”