The Lyric Opera takes advantage of these bloodlines as La Boheme kicks off the company's 45th season. (The opera also opened the Lyric's first season in 1958.) And if putting extra emphasis on La Boheme's similarities to Rent is a hook to lure audiences from outside the art form's niche, no one's complaining, least of all Nicole Heaston, who plays Musetta in the Lyric production.
"I finally saw Rent a couple years ago in New York and enjoyed it a lot," says Heaston. At a barbecue by the pool of her Kansas City hotel, she recalls telling a group of bikers why she's in town. Though La Boheme didn't register, they were impressed when she added, "Rent is the rock-opera version."
Heaston is excited that Rent's popularity could help bring in audiences for La Boheme. But La Boheme already ranks as one of the better-loved operas. Lyric Artistic Director Ward Holmquist has pinpointed a number of reasons for the opera's familiarity. "One is that the music is particularly beautiful, interesting, memorable and delightful," he says. "The story is artistically tragic in a way that people enjoy. It's compact and concise -- an opera that I would have a hard time finding a single bar to cut." He says he's looking forward to the La Boheme opening on Broadway this December. Its biggest buzz comes via its director, Baz Luhrmann, now famous for his role in making the movie Moulin Rouge.
The Lyric is importing its mammoth set and a conductor, Karen Keltner, from the San Diego Opera. Notable, too, is the production's melting pot of a cast. In addition to Heaston and Derrick Parker, who are African-American, the principals are of Korean, Hispanic and American Indian descent. Holmquist says that sort of diversity isn't unusual, because opera audiences have always been rather blasé about the artists' ethnicity. In fact, Heaston played Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the Houston Grand Opera's Jackie 0. "Only Newsweek mentioned that I was African-American," she says.
"Race has never been a factor in my casting," Holmquist adds. "People are aware that there are a fewer number of people who can excel at the operatic repertoire. They'd much rather have a beautiful voice than a literal physical representation. The voice informs how we see them."