Moulin Rogue: Can film-maker Baz Luhrman really make La Bohème sing for a Broadway audience?

I first met Baz Luhrman at a dinner party I threw in New York ten years ago. My guests were all poets. Toward the end of a long, talkative dinner, I asked to be excused briefly. PBS was broadcasting a new Australian production of La Bohème from the Sydney Opera House. “I’ll be back in ten minutes,” I promised my guests, one of whom, a prominent feminist poet-critic, decided to come along for a quick peek, too.

In conventional opera productions, singers are cast for their voices, and audiences must imagine a Luciano Pavarotti as a starving young poet. But these two lovers actually were young, sexy, and Hollywood beautiful. We tuned in midway through the first act, just before the tenor Rodolfo meets the soprano Mimi, the frail seamstress who will become the love of his life. The production was set in Paris, just as Puccini had intended, but the costumes and staging had been cleverly updated to 1957. The 1830s capital of the “Bourgeois Monarch,” Louis-Philippe, was now the postwar Left Bank of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Coco Chanel. In this production, the poet Rodolfo wore a black leather jacket; the artist Marcello, his roommate in a rooftop garret above a stylish boulevard, was a paint-spattered Abstract Expressionist. Mimi entered in a slinky white overcoat. In conventional opera productions, singers are cast for their voices, and audiences must imagine a Luciano Pavarotti as a starving young poet. But these two lovers actually were young, sexy, and Hollywood beautiful. As the slim, ruggedly handsome poet flirtatiously sang his first aria to the sad, smoldering girl beside him, I thought, “How could these two gorgeous kids not fall in love?”

When the opera ended two hours later, we found ourselves sitting in a dark house. The other guests had left. My wife had gone to bed. The poet’s husband had fallen asleep in a chair with their newborn baby in his arms. Surrounded by empty bottles and dirty dishes, we hadn’t noticed anything but the flickering screen. I had cried in three of the four acts. My friend had cried in all four. I watched the credits for the director’s name and then asked her, “Who the hell is Baz Luhrman?”

I wanted to know the director’s name, rather than the conductor’s or the singers’, because the magic of this particular performance was essentially theatrical. It was the best production of La Bohème I had ever seen—not the best sung, the best conducted, or even the best staged, but the one that most deeply filled me with the heartbreaking beauty of the work. Luhrman had found a way of making the tragic romance of Puccini’s lyric masterpiece come irresistibly alive. Though the musical execution was never less than excellent, I found I was not paying close attention to the voices—as a critic normally does at the opera—but simply living each moment through the eyes and heart of the character singing. The highest compliment a critic can give a theatrical production is to say he forgot he was a critic and simply became another spellbound member of the audience.

I soon learned who this Baz Luhrman was, not from my opera magazines but at the movies. Luhrman’s exuberant and edgy first film, Strictly Ballroom, which turned a regional Australian dance competition into a high romantic drama, was released in the U.S. at about the same time as the La Bohème broadcast. Hollywood took note, and a bigger production followed, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), a contemporary urban updating starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes as punky star-crossed lovers whose families are linked to rival gangs. The modest success of these two films, however, was completely overwhelmed by the stylish excesses of Moulin Rouge (2000), starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, which grossed $170 million worldwide and received eight Academy Award nominations.

I found myself alternately enchanted and annoyed by that dizzying, overproduced confection, while constantly admiring the film’s indefatigable manic energy. But what I particularly noticed was how much Luhrman had borrowed for this postmodern musical extravaganza from his La Bohème. The rooftop antics, the cloud-filled Parisian sky, the comic troop of bohemians, the impecunious and lovestruck poet courting a consumptive beauty—hadn’t we seen all this before? Luhrman even meticulously recreated the central design element of his Sydney production: a huge, lipstick-red, neon sign announcing L’Amour atop the boardinghouse rooftop. He clearly still had Puccini on his mind.

So I was not surprised—though I was impressed—to learn that Luhrman planned to bring La Bohème to Broadway. What left me startled, dumbstruck, and overjoyed was that he is going to preview the new production in San Francisco. To call this event extraordinary luck is an understatement. For both local theatergoers and opera lovers, it is a major international event. Here is a chance to see an inspired attempt to reinvent a classical opera for a broad contemporary audience by a director who understands and respects the original.

An Australian film director may seem an odd person to reinvent opera for contemporary America. Raised in a tiny roadside hamlet outside Sydney, where his father ran a gas station, Luhrman would seem more likely to mount a Broadway production of Road Warrior than La Bohème. But cosmopolitan culture is often reinvigorated by talented, driven outsiders. Luhrman has the advantage of seeing opera from a non-traditional perspective, not as a musician, but as a man of the theater, with nearly twenty years of experience in stage and film. “I myself had a fear of opera when I was very young,” he said when we spoke to him in New York early this summer. “An opera house is a very fearful place to go for some people.”

What Luhrman has undertaken is to bring opera back to its real roots—popular, urban entertainment. Staging La Bohème in a medium-size theater like the Curran—and not in the War Memorial Opera House—is an important step in the right direction. Opera was originally created in theaters much smaller than modern American opera houses. San Francisco’s, for example, seats 3,200 people; it is almost twice the size of the 1,700-seat Curran. Operatic singers traditionally perform without electronic amplification, so a smaller house means better, clearer sound. (Luhrman’s production will have “discreet enhancement,” that is, it will use microphones to protect the voices of his young singers from strain.) It also means the audience sits closer to the performers. The dramatic action can be more nuanced and intimate than the broadly played spectacle required by bigger houses. For a drama of individual human emotion like La Bohème, such advantages are immensely important.

While Luhrman will update the opera’s setting—again, to Paris in the ’50s—and skillfully choreograph the stage action, he will not change either Puccini’s beloved music or Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s superb libretto. The opera will be sung in Italian, with cleverly idiomatic surtitle translations. The orchestration will be reduced to 30 players from the 80 instrumentalists one might normally hear. The size and cost of a full orchestra is prohibitive for a Broadway-scale theater, but such a reduced orchestration was not uncommon for smaller regional opera houses in Puccini’s day. (Nor was it unusual in the early days of the San Francisco Opera. Judging from a photograph of a 1930 production in the Civic Auditorium, I would estimate the orchestra to number about 30 players.)

Luhrman’s undertaking is even more audacious if one makes a quick survey of what now constitutes new musical theater on Broadway. Underwritten and overproduced, most new musicals are dumbed-down and goosed-up versions of popular movies—Hairspray, The Producers, The Full Monty. The sets may be magnificent, the special effects startling, but the scores and the highly amplified singing are mostly mediocre.

Luhrman hopes to show that classic quality can succeed on Broadway. He sees his mission as demystifying opera for the general audience without losing its musical and mythic essence—and myth is not an incidental element for him. It is the imaginative force that gives drama its deepest human impact. Each of his films uses archetypal myths to underlie their plots, from the David and Goliath story of Strictly Ballroom to the Orpheus tale in Moulin Rouge. Luhrman also delights in hearing Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English spoken by the gangbangers and news anchors in his Romeo + Juliet, or putting current American pop songs in the 1900 Paris of Moulin Rouge. He calls such devices “red curtain” gestures, overt theatrical stylizations that remind the audience they are not seeing “the naturalistic world,” but a dramatic ritual that reenacts ancient universal myths.

Renewing ancient myth is a noble ambition for any director in today’s commercial theater, but Luhrman is determined to try. At 39, the silver-haired director looks like a young sage, and he is savvy enough to understand that his unbroken string of box office successes may end at any time. “It could be suicide,” he admits. “At some point we will have bitten off more than we can chew. This could be it.” Judging from Luhrman’s earlier work, I predict the only tragedy will be on stage, and it will be to die for.

San Francisco Magazine, October 2002