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'La Boheme': 19th-Century 'Reality Opera'

Giacomo Puccini once said that the secret to his success was putting "great sorrow in little souls" — and he did it with a formula that has fueled a spate of modern network television hits.

In recent years, TV executives have discovered they can get great ratings with programs that don't require expensive stars, writers and highly developed stories. Instead, the phenomenon of reality TV gives us everyday people interacting in unscripted, real life situations — or at least as real as they can be with cameras recording everything.

Back in the late 1800s, a group of opera composers, including Puccini, did something along the same lines, creating what might be called "reality opera." Plainly, they didn't drag everyday folks off the streets and put them in theaters to sing arias. What they did do was to change the shape of opera by introducing those "little souls" Puccini talked about.

For centuries, opera had been dominated by larger-than-life characters: kings and queens, gods and goddesses, mythic figures holding the power of life and death over ordinary people.

Over time, as opera became a more and more popular form of entertainment, things changed. Composers started writing operas about ordinary people, instead of those who ruled over them. The new style was called verismo, and Puccini was among its finest practitioners.

Puccini's operas thrive on the reality that, at some point in their lives, people everywhere — from Rome, to Paris, to Japan, to the American Wild West — all endure the same trials. They struggle with love, envy, betrayal, loss and heartbreak.

It's hard to say which of Puccini's many popular operas has been his greatest hit, but La Boheme is surely a prime candidate. It's a simple drama involving common people. But their feelings are portrayed so deeply, and so vividly, that their emotions soon become ours, and their heartbreaks seem as wrenching as our own.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a performance of La Boheme from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. It features a pair of dynamic young stars, soprano Adriana Damato and tenor Vittorio Grigolo, in a colorful — and racy, some might say — production by the Washington National Opera.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.