"Perfect Placement" La Bohème at Opera Memphis: An AUD Review

Experience the vibrant production of La Bohème by Opera Memphis at the new Scheidt Family Performing Arts Center. Set in 1915 on Beale Street with a predominantly BIPOC cast, this performance explores themes of race, identity, and community. Read our full review to see how this classic opera has been transformed into a celebration of Black excellence and cultural heritage.

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Words cannot describe how much I love this production of La Bohème. Set in 1915 on Beale Street in Memphis, TN, it was a time when Beale Street was a vibrant hub of African American culture, music, and prosperity. This is the perfect backdrop for a story about struggling artists in love in the face of adversity. By featuring a predominantly BIPOC cast, the production explores themes of race, identity, and community, shedding new light on a classic story and making it more accessible and impactful for today’s audiences. This production not only showcases the talented performers but also reflects the rich cultural heritage of Memphis and honors the contributions of artists of color to the arts.

In This AUDicle:

  • A Stunning Performance
  • Setting and Themes
  • Memorable Moments and Characters
  • Technical Excellence
  • Community Impact

A Stunning Performance

I was stunned by this production. In fact, I don't think I've ever actually been to an opera. We first heard about La Bohème when Opera Memphis reached out to us about a collaboration; unfortunately, we weren't able to do it, but they were still gracious enough to invite us to the performance.

From the moment I walked into the theatre, I was blown away. The new Scheidt Family Performing Arts Center is a sight to see. I watched them build it from the ground up, and it was exciting to see inside of it for the first time. The acoustics in that space are incredible, as demonstrated by Opera Memphis CEO Ned Canty, who gave a beautiful ode to Black artists and production teams, especially in Memphis, before the show.

Setting and Themes

Set in 1915 Memphis, the production beautifully captures the essence of Beale Street, a vibrant hub of African American culture. The decision to set the show during this time and place with a Black cast was inspiring. My eyes swelled with pride from the sound they produced and the way the cast moved. Though performed in Italian, I could still feel and understand what was happening on stage. The themes of race, identity, and community were poignantly explored, shedding new light on this classic story and making it more accessible and impactful for today’s audiences.

Reginald Smith Jr. as Marcello, Kayla Hill Oderah as Musetta, Marquita Richardson as Mimi in La Bohéme

Memorable Moments and Characters

The cast was exceptional. Chauncey Packer as Rodolfo and Reginald Smith Jr. as Marcello were standouts. Reginald's voice has this bottomless guttural, out-of-this-world power to it. I couldn't figure out how they were doing it as a vocalist myself. I left the first scene feeling very inspired to learn more about my voice. It is unique to see Black people performing opera, especially in the South. It was nice to be reminded of how much of a study opera is through watching this. I could also immediately see Jonathan Larson’s inspiration and foundation for RENT.

Marquita Richardson as Mimi took my breath away every time she opened her mouth. Her mannerisms and presence offered this flirty, easy-going, relatable character that was easy to connect with. I could not get enough of her and I was rooting for her and Rodolfo the entire time. Their chemistry on stage was so romantic and even sexy at times. Once we are introduced to Musetta, played by Kayla Hill Oderah, the show takes a fun, but tragic turn. She is spicy and daring, going up against the strongest of men.

The men of this production are a powerful representation of musicality. I recall writing a FB status while watching this saying, oh, opera is a bunch of runs! I was so enthralled by the use of scales and dynamics to portray dialog. It made me wonder, why this is so frowned upon in white, mainstream, theatre. The bias against scales and anything particularly permitted as jazz is poignant and even tricking into Black performance spaces. It reminded me of a statement Mykal Kilgore made a few months back about eliminating our sound from the stage, but that’s another essay for another day. This cast deserves its flowers for their mastery of their craft.

Another highlight for me was the townspeople. It was so beautiful to see Black artists of all ages showcased with dignity. Chorus Master, Jonathan King, should be very proud as this ensemble had a powerful sound. I appreciated that it still had soul and girth to it. Often on stage Black voices are thinned out and strained for mainstream choices. Opera Memphis managed to not do this. It was not some white show with Black people littered on stage as sympathetic progression. It was US, really US showcasing our brilliance.

The ensemble cast of Opera Memphis' La Bohéme

Technical Excellence

The scenic design by Brian J. Ruggaber was minimal yet impactful, using lights and mullin cloth to project historic Memphis scenes. The costumes by Jen Gillette were meticulously researched and beautifully realized, adding depth to the characters and authenticity to the setting.

A notable moment occurred when a technical difficulty paused the show. In the midst of the first scene as things are getting heated, Ned walks on stage. It was uncanny at first, but then he opens his mouth to tell us that they’re having a technical difficulty (unbeknownst to me) and that the translating screens aren’t displaying. He takes a moment, the crew helps the actors off the stage in a nurturing manner, and the show pauses for a moment. The couple beside me had never been to an opera before or a theatre production. I assured them that this was unusual, but it was being handled with such grace and efficiency. By the time the technical hold was ramified, we didn’t notice. In fact, it felt like we got some special insider behind the scenes moment. It was so cool. Kudos to Ned for handling that incredibly.

The show resumed seamlessly, taking on a silent film kind of aura where the audience relied on glances at the translation screens for context.

The orchestra, led by Conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, was mesmerizing. The harmony and synchronization were flawless, enhancing the emotional impact of the performance. Stage Director Dennis Whitehead Darling should be very proud of himself, his ensemble, and this piece. Opera Memphis really knocked it out of the park with this one.

Community Impact

This production of La Bohème is a powerful representation of Black excellence in the arts. It was not just a performance but a celebration of our rich cultural heritage. Seeing a predominantly BIPOC cast bring such a classic story to life with dignity and respect was inspiring.

“This is what it look like”

Shout out to Director of Partnerships, Shelbi Sellers, for thinking of AUD. We really appreciate it and you for taking the time to look into Black voices to reflect on Black representation. Kudos to Opera Memphis for creating such a transformative and inclusive production.

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