December 2005.By American Theatre.

Minnesota’s first annual Ivey Awards—reportedly named for a Minneapolis bar—spotlighted artists Joe Chvala, Marcus Dillard, Steve Hendrickson, Helen Huang, Kimberly Joy Morgan and Stacia Rice. Five productions were also singled out: Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s The Miser, the Guthrie Theater’s Death of a Salesman, Theater Latté Da’s La Bohème, the Children’s Theatre Company’s A Year with Frog and Toad and Off-Leash Area’s Psst! Nathan Christopher was highlighted as an emerging artist, and Penumbra Theatre Company’s Lou Bellamy was recognized for lifetime achievement. For a complete list of winners, see

The Athletic Voice: Opera is no longer reserved for the effete and the affluent.

May 2005.By Christy DeSmith, The Rake.

Opera is not for entry-level art patrons. Generally, it’s something you dabble in only after mastering theater, orchestra concerts, show tunes, music videos, and punk rock. When you finally arrive at the altar of a 225-pound Valkyrie, well, it’s sort of what Richard Gere said to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: “Those who love it will always love it. Those who hate it might come to appreciate it, but they’ll never truly love it.”

Years after seeing Pretty Woman—and, thank heavens, listening to La Bohème on my bedroom stereo (I knew Mimi had tuberculosis, but I didn’t expect her to sound like a calf at the slaughterhouse), I now know that Gere’s line is only half-true. Sure, operatic singing immediately grabs some and repels others, but there are built-in obstacles to appreciating this art form. Pre-recorded and portable music, for one, reigns in our era; and as I learned with Mimi, the acoustic power of opera doesn’t translate well to recordings. One can not fall in love with Puccini via MP3.

Above all, would-be opera lovers need to feel welcomed to their seats. As it is, opera is snobby. It’s expensive. If the music doesn’t put you off, the ticket price and pageantry just might. The story of how American opera got so plumped up with pomp is a hundred-plus-year-old tale, peopled by nouveau riche who liked the idea of an exclusionary art form. No doubt, their hoity-toity traditions carry on in many ways; the pie charts for Minnesota Opera’s current audience demographics, for example, paint a picture of a rich, mostly white crowd with graduate degrees.

But elsewhere, there are hints that opera’s bodice is about to burst into populism. For starters, recent smaller, more intimate productions like Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Maria de Buenos Aires or Theater Latté Da’s La Boheme drew sell-out crowds of casual theatergoers and avant-garde types wearing obscure denim labels. I recently watched a young man with a red Mohawk bound up the stairs at Jeune Lune to get a good seat, his wallet chain jingling against his pocket change (no one seemed surprised about him but me). Outside the theaters, bars are hosting opera recitals; a duo known as “Opera Babes” is making hit records; a gargantuan production of Carmina Burana is on a nationwide stadium tour; and—my favorite—classically trained singers are performing “hip-hopera,” operatic odes from Eminem and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. (Here’s hoping a Twin Cities station will pick up this trend, which currently flourishes on a hip-hop station in New York City).

It’s hard to pinpoint when this opera boom began, but the first leap toward the form’s democratization came in the 1980s and 1990s, with the advent of supertitles, which are much like foreign-film subtitles, but projected above the stage in huge type. For the first time, American audiences had a play-by-play translation of French, German, and Italian librettos—and thus an understanding of how truly sensational, even downright trashy, most opera stories are.

Then, in 1997, a National Endowment for the Arts study made a shocking discovery: Opera fans aren’t dying. In fact, the median age of an opera patron was on par with the fashionable theatergoing set and slightly younger than classical music concertgoers (all of whom hover in their mid-forties). Looking more closely at their forty-, thirty-, even twentysomething audience base, many opera companies “rebranded” themselves with sexy ad campaigns and edgier productions. Minnesota Opera even spawned a “Young Professionals Group,” which is just an urbane thing to call a singles club.

During this same time, small-scale opera productions started cropping up across the country. They were—and continue to be—revolutionary in many ways, but their key value is that they get people up close and personal with the noisemakers, which is essential to falling in love with the form. (Here, folks of modest means can afford the front-row sears.) Minnesota is home to one of the nation’s sexiest mini-opera booms, thanks in large part to Theatre de la Jeune Lune artistic director Dominique Serrand and his preferred troupe: a dashing baritone named Bradley Greenwald and the beautiful, crooning Baldwin sisters; but credit it also due to North Star Opera and Theater Latté Da.

Anecdotally, attendance at traditional theater productions appears to be flat, but opera shows, both big and small, are making bank. Both Jeune Lune’s Maria de Buenos Aires and Latté Da’s La Bohème had extended, sold-out runs; on the more traditional end of the spectrum, Minnesota Opera sells upward of ninety percent of its seats available in an average season. Of course, opera performances are not nearly as abundant as those for theater, but clearly arts patrons are flocking to the new opera options available to them.

For many Americans, operatic singing sounds as unnatural as Italian bluegrass or French rap. In the U.S. our ear for music is inevitably shaped by our own rich vocal traditions, spanning rock, country, blues, jazz, and hip-hop. Tying these disparate, home-grown forms together are vocal techniques that tend to toward intimacy and “throatiness.” Operatic singing, on the contrary, originates from places deeper in the body. Quite literally, young girls training as opera singers are told to sing from their vaginas (look closely and you occasionally will see a soprano holding herself there during her highest Cs). Aside from that gendered extreme, most musicians would agree that opera vocals originate in the abdomen, as opposed to rock music, which is more from the throat or the head.

These techniques can make opera sound inflated and piercing, especially to those who came of age listening to pop. So why are legions of younger Americans cozying up to that blaring sound now? The folks I know in the opera biz are elusive about the “heightened emotion” that colors opera, referring to the unrestrained, full-body effort operatic singing requires. Those of us with broader musical palates, however, usually find that operatic singing sounds no more or less emotional than, say, Johnny Rotten snarling his way through “God Save the Queen.”

Theater Latté Da Continues Its Superb Tradition with La Bohème

March 17, 2005.By John Townsend, Lavender.

Conventional wisdom tells us entertainment that’s smart, sophisticated, deep, and done on a small scale never will hit. But for 11 years, Theater Latté Da has defied that maxim with some of the most consistently rich and lovely musical-theater fare you’ll see anywhere. And that means anywhere.

Latté Da has taken what can be the safest and least confrontational of theatrical genres—the musical—and turned it on its head, often selling tickets hand over fist. Hollywood could take a lesson.

In an era when queer theater seems to be struggling to redefine itself and just survive, Latté Da seamlessly integrates queer themes, concepts, and characters, while simultaneously appealing to a mainstream audience with lots of nonqueer material.

We’re not talking about tokenism, but shows that pack a punch: Terrence McNally’s A Man of No Importance, or queer-sensitive numbers included in Latté Da’s very first show in 1994, Coffee in a Cardboard Cup.

This is a company interested in shifting our idea if what we think theater itself actually is.

Co-Founding Artistic Director Peter Rothstein says he likes the notion of “disrupting the narrative, while moving the narrative forward.”

For instance, Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George has no queer themes per se. But visually, the ensemble must “become” the painted images of Georges Seurat on stage.

It’s an edge, however, that doesn’t try to jolt you for its own sake, like so much pop-culture drivel nowadays.

Rather, it comes from a stated philosophy that asks: What stories need to be told at this time? In this community? What voices need to be heard? How can theater artists create for an audience new ways of looking at something? And how might an existing work be reimagined?

An example: Latté Da’s current intimate treatment of the traditional grand opera La Bohème. It’s moving and exquisite.

Rothstein has reset Giacomo Puccini’s original 1840s Paris milieu a century later to the onset od the Nazi occupation.

The opera’s angry viewpoints on poverty and struggling artists are still intact, if not enhanced. Its view of possessive versus unconditional love, ahead of its time to begin with, comes through clearly.

And the war theme resonates painfully, as our own soldiers are picked off by Iraqi insurgents. It’s a subdued, rather than an overt, political message, saying much about the way war degrades the romantic and artistic spirit.

Latté Da’s 1997 production of William Finn’s Falsettos, with its themes of gay male love threatened by AIDS, comes to mind. However, Co-Founding Music Director Denise Prosek sees a silver lining: “We are all reminded of the people who play the most important roles in our lives, and are given the task to appreciate and love them with all out passion while they are still here.”

Tod Petersen’s devastating portrait of A Man of No Importance, who at midlife faces the sadness of unrequited homosexual love in parochial 1960s Dublin, was a transformational performance in a production that looked as if it were an extension of a Magritte painting. It’s a hallmark in Latté Da history.

And who could forget the Kander and Ebb song “Dear One” from Kiss of the Spider Woman (another McNally piece) included in Coffee in a Cardboard Cup?

Prosek reflects that each character “is lamenting the loss of a specific relationship with another person in the quartet, unaware that their loss is shared by all the others. The four characters are experiencing changes in their relationships that they don’t want to see.

“’I do nicely without you.’ ‘I don’t miss you inside me.’ ‘All my anger is fading.’ And then all together, ‘Say that over and over, keep repeating it, and you’ll believe the lie.’

“By repeating it to themselves that they’re not hurt—especially by singing in the ‘third person’—they don’t have to see the changes, or change their perceptions of the world around them.”

But don’t think that Latté Da’s vision is all gloom and angst. It can be outrageously festive.

Rob Hartmann’s hilarious Poodle Rescue was part of Latté Da’s 2002 New York Musical Shorts. A gay breakup means someone must part with the couple’s pooch.

Two years earlier, Oh S#!%, I’m Turning Into My Mother dared to broach the possibility that gay men might resemble their moms more than we’d like to admit. Conceived by Rothstein, new and existing music was juxtaposed with autobiographical reflections from Tod Petersen.

Petersen’s life also has been mined for what has become, over the past five years, a new Twin Cities holiday tradition: A Christmas Carole Petersen. It’s estimated that more than 80 percent of the audience in attendance is straight, and some are on record for seeing it three times a run.

Rothstein remarks, “You either believe in Santa Claus, or you become Santa Claus. What happens when there is no one to be Santa Claus for?

“What happens to that human need for make-believe, for family, for tradition? As child-less gay men, what happens to the need to leave something behind, to leave a legacy?”

Perhaps it’s great art and innovation. And Latté Da’s legacy assures that.

Coming up is King of Hearts, based on the French film about inmates who escape from an insane asylum during World War I.

What’s remarkable is that it’s a coproduction with Interact Theater, the region’s flagship theater for citizens with disabilities.

Rothstein calls it “disability-blind casting,” explaining, “Actors with disabilities will be playing nondisabled characters, and vice versa—hopefully, throwing into question our preconceived notions of the disabled.”

Next year, look for a trilogy of one-act musicals done with aerial acrobatics. The central metaphor will be flight.

Surely, few theaters can compare to Latté Da’s audaciousness and willingness to go where angels fear to tread.

La Bohème Runs through April 3 Loring Playhouse 1633 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. (612) 343-3390 <>

la Boheme

March 9, 2005.By Steven LaVigne, Living Out.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), but I’m beginning to change my opinion. One reason is Theatre Latte Da’s splendid “La Boheme.” Perhaps inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s recent staging, which moved the story to the 1950s, director Peter Rothstein has taken the kinks out of this warhorse. While it’s wisely sung in Italian, the ensemble is small, but full of good voices done by a young and energetic cast. I found the result far more refreshing than Zefferelli’s overproduced 1982 Metropolitan Opera staging, featuring: multilayered sets and a Mimi whose throat was closed until the Third Act, and was nowhere near the 21-year-old victim of T.B. called for in the script.

Based on Henri Murger’s “Scenes de Boheme,” the plot focuses on Rodolfo, a poet, Marcello, a painter, Colline, a philosophy student, Schaunard, a musician and Musetta, Marcello’s old flame, who’s allowed a wealthy man to take care of her. On Christmas Eve, Rodolpho meets Mimi, a seamstress, and they quickly fall in love against the background of the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Rothstein uses the clay sculptures arranged on the same table which will serve as Mimi’s deathbed as his vista of the City of Light. Little things, here and there capture the mood of the period, but it’s the quality of this glorious cast which must be celebrated. Daniel Cardwell’s Rodolfo, Aaron Larson’s Marcello, Rob Woodin’s Schaunard, and Roy Kallemeyn in several roles, lead the marvelous ensemble of men, while Bryan Boyce, whom I’ve seen in several University Opera productions, is a triumphant Colline. There are few moments in the opera vernacular that marvel an audience like “Musetta’s Waltz,” even in “Rent,” that travesty which passes for a modern variation on this tragic romance. In Rothstein’s version, Jill Sandager is accompanied by an accordian, and it’s a highlight of the evening. Meghann Schmidt’s Mimi is luscious and beautiful, and hers is a voice of which I hope to here more in the future.

Joseph Schlefke is to be commended for his brilliant orchestration. He’s arranged the score for a five-piece combo of street instruments, and it enhances this valentine of a production.

“La Boheme” has been extended through April 6 at the Loring Playhouse.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Theatre Latté Da kills with a stripped-down opera

March 9, 2005.By Quinton Skinner, City Pages.

Before a performance of this entirely satisfying opera last week, director Peter Rothstein addressed the audience, encouraging them to inform their friends if they liked what they saw, and to turn off their cell phones. We wouldn't want a ringer going off during Mimi's death scene, he added, as had occurred opening night. Then Rothstein caught himself, aghast. He'd just given away the ending.

Rothstein needn't have fretted. The audience reacted with a roar of laughter, because anyone with a glancing familiarity with La Bohème knows that Mimi's a goner, and the ending is telegraphed anyway from her first tubercular cough. Before that happens, the story deals with a gang of four Parisian intellectuals and unrepentant slackers. The poet Rodolfo falls in love with Mimi after a chance encounter in their apartment building. Rodolfo's best friend, the painter Marcello, has had his heart broken by the vamp Musetta, who uses and discards men like Kleenex but who, you know, really has a heart of gold.

Plot-driven it's not. The real drama was whether Rothstein's largely youthful cast could manage a credible version of what my classical music guide refers to as "the most popular opera ever written." The answer is an unqualified yes. Rothstein has trimmed this sizable opera down to two hours (with intermission) and given it a scope and pace befitting an intimate venue and a limited budget. The cast fulfills his vision with a palpable sense of comfort and confidence, and the result is a modestly lush, uncluttered take on romantic tragedy and the transcendence of aesthetic passions.

Meghann Schmidt as Mimi gives a solid take on a character whose every light-hearted utterance is tinged with the end to come. Daniel Cardwell's Rodolfo is also a treat, a likeable schlub when hanging with the guys, then a mess once his love for Mimi takes unexpected detours (I'm sure I'm not the first to notice that Puccini seems a bit, shall we say, conflicted about his female characters). Cardwell has just recently received his master's degree, and after noticing that Bryan Boyce as Colline looked young, I consulted the production notes and learned that he's a college senior. This is no knock on Boyce, who has a strong voice and a good stage presence, but it seems a testament to Rothstein's abilities to mold this young cast into such a cohesive unit.

The very small orchestra, directed by Joseph Schlefke from the piano, takes on Puccini's score by reducing the sonic scope of the proceedings while adding guitar and accordion textures--a taste of the Parisian street musette inserted in the right measure. Another twist is Rothstein's placing the action before and after the Nazi occupation of France. It's a provocative move, and Rothstein evinces wisdom in not overplaying the implications.

Audiences have been responding. Theatre Latté Da sold out the entire run of La Bohème early on, and has added nine performances to match demand. This scaled-down production of this most canonical opera has become one of the early success stories of this year. For a theatergoer with little opera experience but an open mind, such as this critic, it's easy to see why the show has caught on the way it has.

When La Bohème premiered in 1896, the initial critical response was that it pretty much sucked. And they kind of had a point--viewed dispassionately, it's a string of clichés bound together by some gorgeous orchestral music. But who approaches opera dispassionately? When Rodolfo meets Mimi and they spill out their life stories as catalogues of aesthetic delights rather than biographical histories, a sort of fragile beauty comes into being. The harsh light of day is no great shakes, after all, and there's something to be said for holding hands in the dark.

PUCCINI, ON A DIET: Theater Latté Da’s taut, intimate ‘La Bohème’

February 7, 2005.By Michael Metzger, Skyway News.

Giacomo Puccini has been dead 80 years, but “La Bohème,” his tale of destitute, loving, laughing and dying artists, is as alive and vibrant as ever. This year alone, the staple of romantic opera will be staged at the Opernhaus in Zürich, the Royal Opera House in London, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Staatsoper in Vienna and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow – and Downtown at the Loring Playhouse.

Director transports ‘La Bohème’ to 1940s Paris

Latté Da stages its own intensely intimate “La Bohème,” beginning Saturday, Feb. 12, and running through March 13. The run includes a special Valentine’s Day performance and reception Monday, Feb. 14.

It might seem silly to even mention the 120-seat Loring in the same breath as those stately giants of opera, but Puccini’s romantic masterpiece transcends seating capacity and the wattage of the spotlights trained on the performers playing Mimi and Rodolfo.

The bohemian tour de force might even be best suited to a cozy setting such as the Loring, contends Theater Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein.

“It’s really an intimate opera,” Rothstein said. “So much of it takes place in a small garret apartment at the top of a building. It’s not terribly different than what the Loring Playhouse is; the top floor of an old building at the edge of town.”

A world between wars Rothstein knew he’d have to make some significant changes to fit “La Bohème” on a small stage, because even though the opera can be cozy, it’s also, at times, lavish, raucous and spectacular.

The tale of Mimi the impoverished seamstress and the poor poet Rodolfo has been an audience favorite since it was first staged – to lukewarm critical reviews – in Turin in 1896.

Nearly 110 years later, simple economics and a very modest floorplan dictate some terms to Latté Da: there can be no more huge orchestra and no giant crowd scenes filled with jesters, dancers and vendors.

Therefore, Rothstein decided to throw Puccini into a time machine and move “La Bohème” forward 100 years. Instead of 1840, the setting is now 1940; Paris is about to be visited by its conqueror, Adolph Hitler. (History and opera intersect neatly here: the first place in Paris that the dictator and would-be architect visited was the city’s magnificent opera house.)

Rothstein sees a connection between the Paris of 1940, as it sat and waited for its Nazi occupiers, and an America that might be emerging today.

He said the French, after the decimation of the Maginot Line, knew the fall of Paris wasn’t far behind. They refused to destroy their beloved Paris. However, preferring to fight the Nazis on other days and in other ways.

“There was a kind of radical pacifist that sat in cafés and drank champagne as the Nazi’s marched down the Champs-Elysées,” Rothstein said. “It’s beyond my comprehension, in a way, that determination to still embrace beauty.”

He said he’s given the piece a political context rather than having made it into a political opera. While he’s added the patina of a crumbling, humbled France to “La Bohème,” the time-shift is really a reflection of the changes happening today, here in his homeland, he said.

“How do I keep articulating my pacifist nature, my romantic view of the world, when clearly that is not valued by at least 50 percent of the people I share this nation with? he wondered out loud.

Still, Puccini’s masterwork is ultimately about love, not war and not pacifism. It’s for “people who want to believe in beauty and love and the power of art and the power of music and the power of words,” Rothstein said.

He altered sound as well as time: Instead of an 80-piece orchestra, there’s a five-piece ensemble made up of a piano, accordion, guitar, violin and woodwinds.

“What if we go to a 1930s Paris café sound?” Rothstein wondered. “Edith Piaf and this whole world between the wars.”

Rothstein talked Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra music director Joseph Schlefke into coming up with completely new orchestration for what is perhaps the world’s most popular operatic work.

“Keeping its integrity was always our primary task,” Schlefke said. “We don’t do a lot of messing with what’s there. The score is intact in all the same keys. There’s nothing fishy going on. It’s just a different way to present something with respect for the art itself.”

It took Schlefke seven months, four to six hours a day, to create the new instrumentation.

He considers himself lucky to have gotten off so easily. It’s kind of bizarre how the Puccini transcribed itself so well to this,” he said.

Lean Italian cuisine Schlefke said one of the questions he wrestled with over those months is how much he would alter “La Bohème” to transform it into music playable by a Parisian café ensemble.

“To be honest, I didn’t have to do that much,” he said. The musical diet has slimmed the expansive score; a performance of the Rothstein-Schlefke “La Bohème” clocks in at around two hours, including intermission.

More important, the leaner instrumentation allows for size-appropriate singers. In other words, this opera’s vocalists don’t need to tip the scales at 300 pounds, a la Luciano Pavarotti. (Pavarotti’s Rodolfo remains a vocal benchmark, but the sight of the rotund, nicely aged tenor as the starving young poet must’ve amused more than one audience back in his 1980s heyday.)

In Latté Da’s “La Bohème,” Daniel Cardwell’s Rodolfo is actually young and lean. The same is true of Mimi (Meghann Schmidt).

Schlefke said the age and size-appropriate singers don’t have to fight through the traditionally heavy orchestration in order to be heard.

“Those characters don’t have that bed of sound literally underneath them,” he said. “Traditionally there’s this big trampoline, this big mattress of sound that keeps them from being vulnerable.”

Said Schlefke, “[Schmidt] loves the fact that we tell her she can sing softer. She can actually do a lot more with color and variety instead of mentally trying to overcome an 80-piece orchestra.”

Subterranean revelations Down in the basement of the Epiphany Lutheran Church, 1414 E. 48th St., a group of 20 or so performers and support staff gather with Rothstein and Schlefke to run through a rehearsal.

The only musical accompaniment for the practice is Schlefke’s piano. He’ll play the instrument during performances and conduct from his piano bench as well.

It’s here that Rothstein tweaks “La Bohème” again.

“I wanted to see what could happen to huge, romantic opera by putting it through a process that I would normally employ at the Loring Playhouse,” he said.

Latté Da typically has its actors and singers in for six weeks of workshops, where they get to toss ideas back and forth with director Rothstein, and then the cast goes into six weeks of rehearsal. In the last week of rehearsal before “La Bohème” is thrust onto the Loring stage, most of the singers were like the proverbial fine racehorses, stamping their feet and tossing their manes as they strained to feel the gates release them.

Though Cardwell seemed to be holding his voice in reserve for opening night, Schmidt was incandescent, lighting up Mimi’s first act aria with warm, delicate phrasing and a flickering, come-hither consumptive’s smile.

Rothstein said he and music director Denise Prosek founded Theater Latté Da seven years ago, determined to “create new connections between text, music, artists and audience.”

Audiences in Loring Park will be able to see the results close up.

Lavender Calendar

February 2005.By Lavender.

Thursday, February 10 La Bohème. Local impresarios Peter Rothstein and Joseph Schlefke inject a little Botox into Puccini’s much-loved masterpiece of high opera and low life in Paris, and sing the praises of Bohemian squalor and adventure on the high Cs. 8 PM. Runs through Mar. 13. Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. (612) 343-3390. <>

‘La Bohème’ reimagined for a new day

February 2005.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

As Peter Rothstein dug into a bowl of granola and fruit the other morning, he bore the tell-tale signs of insomnia – puffy eyes, flat and sticky hair, a shadowy stubble on his cheeks and chin. He told a reporter he made the best of his nocturnal wakefulness—watching one of the countless wee-hours of World War II documentaries on the History Channel.

The 4 a.m. tutorial served Rothstein’s current theatrical project well. On Saturday, he will set Puccini’s “La Bohème” not in the 1830s, but a century later—on the cusp of the German conquest of Paris. The first two acts will reflect the hopes and dreams of the City of Light before its innocence was lost in the Occupation.

“It’s personal for me,” said Rothstein, the artistic director of Theatre Latté Da. “I’m trying to maintain my pacifist and romantic ideology in our current world, so I’m looking for a time in history that could resonate.”

Rothstein’s “La Bohème” is something of a landmark. It is the first opera he has produced in the troupe’s home, the Loring Playhouse. His music director for the project, Joseph Schlefke, has constructed a new orchestration reflecting a Parisian sensibility, with piano, violin, accordion, guitar, flute and clarinet. And Rothstein has written an entirely new translation for the surtitles that accompany the Italian libretto.

‘La Bohème’ is timeless, artistic director believes

What ties together all the elements, Rothstein said, is approaching the century-old opera as a new work.

“We’re heightening the vulnerability and focusing on the loss of innocence more than the poverty,” he said. “The piece is about vulnerability and romance vs. fear.”

Rothstein said that he feels “La Bohème” is specific to Paris as a location but that it travels fairly easily through time. The more he researched the city’s life during World Wars I and II, the more fascinated he became with the optimism (however misguided) expressed by a population heavy with academics and artists. The first great conflict, they argued, would end all wars. And when that proved wrong, preservation was more important than resistance, he said.

“Parisans wanted to save their art and architecture and literally sat at cafes drinking Champagne while the Nazis marched down Champs Elysées,” he said.

That radical pacifism fascinated him. In considering Puccini’s score, he noted the contrast between the first two acts – bubbly and light – and the third and fourth acts, which brood with darkness. While Puccini used the plight of starving and sick artists to fit that difference in tonality, Rothstein felt the war conquest offered a stronger progression.

The Bohemians “La Bohème” debuted in Turin, Italy, in 1896. Working from Henry Murger’s sketches of Parisian Bohemian life, the Italian composer created delicate characters full of hope and tragedy.

It has inspired dozens of knockoffs – most notably the recent musical “Rent.” Whereas Puccini used tuberculosis as the heartless face of fate, Jonathan Larsen expressed that same life cruelty with AIDS.

Director Baz Luhrmann has contributed two homages since 2000 – the florid but inventive film “Moulin Rouge”and a new look at the opera itself, which hit Broadway in 2003. Critics and audiences took particular note of the production because Luhrmann moved it to the 1950s and shaved the orchestra down to Broadway size.

Rothstein cut even deeper, and he believes the change will reflect itself in Latté Da’s production. For example, he points out, he has employed a fairly young cast.

He doesn’t need a powerful, 45-year-old singer to portray the heroine, Mimi, because she doesn’t need to project over a 90-piece orchestra in a 2,000-seat hall. Some of the smaller-scale arias will be done just with guitar. Schlefke said he wanted his arrangements to reflect the French cafe scene with some significant variations to break the fatigue.

Set designer Mike Hoover laughed at the suggestion that it seems as if each time Latté Da gets onto the Loring stage, the set it bigger and more ambitious than the last.

“Well, we don’t want to take a step back,” he said.

It does appear, at least in the model, that Rothstein and Hoover have designs on more square footage than ever. The set’s primary motif is a painting that Rothstein discovered by Minneapolis artist Nicholas Harper. Titled “Bonjour Tristesse” (“Hello to Sorrow”), the image of a woman strongly suggests surrealism in dark blues and reds.

Hoover modeled arches, walls, doors and rooms, all bearing images from the Harper painting.

“We wanted realistic architectural elements that are treated in non-naturalistic ways,” he said.

Field trip Rothstein spent 10 weeks last autumn in Italy, living on the same Umbrian and Tuscan soil that Puccini trod. The composer was born in Lucca and composed “La Bohème” at his lake home in Torre del Lago. The house is a museum, and the town presents a Puccini  festival every summer.

His primary mission on this trip was to study the language so that he could do a fresh translation of the libretto. Sitting in the same spots that Puccini frequented – overlooking the lake, in sidewalk cafes – Rothstein worked on surtitles in the evening and after attending university classes during the day.

However intellectual those pursuits, Rothstein drew even richer knowledge from the spirit of Puccini, present in the atmosphere of rural communities that still revere him. In one small mountain village, Rothstein was greeted at a museum by its 80-year-old curator.

“The joy he had in showing me these things,” he said. “A phonograph that Thomas Edison had sent Puccini after he’d seen the ‘Bohème’ premiere in New York. On the wall was a palette with a photo of Puccini. It was his opening-night present.”

His objective in the translation was to find the spirit and poetry of Puccini, rather than a word-for-word rendering. At a recent rehearsal, Rothstein said he still needed to edit, to determine what was really necessary to tell the story of what could be dropped.

“We’re very literature-based,” he said of Americans. “In good opera, the music is more than a character; it’s a huge part of the dramatic action.”

For all the ambition, Rothstein has a good deal riding on the project. Just the new orchestration and translation would constitute a bold foray. The young cast, the small music ensemble and the change in time setting only add to the challenge.

“It doesn’t feel like a deconstruction,” he said. “We’re trying to honor Puccini’s spirit but also the characters.”

Micro-Opera! Here’s how to stage an opera on a shoestring.

2005.By Christy DeSmith, The Rake.

With its cast of starving poets and musicians and creative squatters, Puccini’s La Bohème has not only inspired generations of bohemians; some would say it’s the best known and most accessible opera in the canon. When someone goes to the opera for the first time, frequently it’s to see La Bohème. It has also been the touchstone for many hip, latter-day shows, such as Rent and Moulin Rouge. Yet a modern-day Rodolfo who showed up in hopes of cadging a rush ticket to the Minnesota Opera’s recent production would have been disappointed; the entire run was sold out to business suits and little black cocktail dresses.

So it is with perhaps a little romantic vengeance that one should anticipate Theatre Latté Da’s intimate production of La Bohème, opening later this month. It will feature a stripped-down, hot-rod cast and a small musical troupe, instead of the typical hullaballoo. This Bohème comes on the heels of many other tiny opera productions that have been staged recently, a trend spearheaded by Theatre de la Jeune Lune and North Star Opera Company.

Traditionalists often cringe when smaller, underfunded arts organizations go capering with Rossini, Stravinsky, and the like. There are good reasons to worry. These shows minimize ensemble singers, reduce orchestrations for a small band or piano quintet, and they often cast a singer or two who can’t hit the score’s original key. In other words, the producers of these operas are saving money and passing those savings along to you. Tickets to see these shows are in the ballpark of fifteen to thirty dollars, a relative bargain.

In the case of Theatre Latté Da, it’s taking some bold liberties with the world’s best-known opera. Although the company has kept the score and libretto intact, and all singing will be in the original key, artistic director Peter Rothstein in tearing La Bohème from its 1830s roots and planting it in the 1930s—still in Paris, still in the Latin Quarter apartment of some starving artists, but this time on the eve of Nazi occupation. “I think La Bohème is rooted in a specific place but not a specific time,” said Rothstein. “I wanted to put the show in a world that heightens its theme of loss of innocence.”

Minus the usual orchestra and large ensemble of singers, Rothstein’s production amplifies the story’s darker elements. “It’s difficult to find a character’s vulnerability when there’s an eighty-piece orchestra playing below them,” said Rothstein. The real trick in transferring Bohème to the 1930s was to orchestrate the score for guitar, piano, violin, clarinet, flute, and—non dieu!—accordion. In other words, the full complement of Parisian street and café instruments.

“It’s going to sound extraordinarily different,” said Joe Schlefke, who, as music director on the project, is the guy responsible for introducing an accordion to Pucchini. “But it’s not sacrilege. We’re trying to be respectful for the whole piece.” As it is written, La Bohème’s characters—Mimi, Rodolpho, Colline, and the rest—are all in their twenties, but the show’s vocal demands usually require well-seasoned singers in their forties or fifties. The dimensions of the 130-seat Loring Playhouse Theater loosen those restrictions, allowing Latté Da to cast age-appropriately (read: cheap grad-student talent). “Our singers aren’t made for big houses,” said Schlefke, who gets to add whispers and other subtleties that wouldn’t play well in the 1,900-seat Ordway. Besides, said Rothstein, “Mimi dies of consumption. You can’t believe that when she weighs two-twenty.”