Augusta Opera ramps up “La Boheme” by breaking the fourth wall

The Augusta Opera is like that biker guy at the end of the bar. He doesn’t ask much and he wants to get in your face.

In their new production of “La Boheme,” the company doesn’t just break the unseen fourth wall, they’ve demolished the house and moved into your living room. Throw out what you know of “stage” plays. They don’t stop at the edge of the proscenium. They jump right off and into your lap.
Henry Akina, who is the staging director in charge of their 4-D production, is also the general and artistic director of the Hawaii Opera Theater. Opera enthusiasts who saw the company’s production of “Madame Butterfly” are already familiar with his work. In that previous production about a doomed affair between a Japanese woman and an American soldier, Akina sent the geishas sashaying and singing to the stage through the aisles and over a small bridge.
When they appeared, there was a collective gasp from the audience, said production coordinator Kitty Reagan. Akina also placed one scene in the balcony, giving the cheap seats a rich view of the classic opera.
“It includes the audience in the show. It makes them participants rather than just viewers,” Reagan said, bringing ticket holders to the upcoming production of “La Boheme” out of their plush burgundy seats and into the streets of Paris in the 1830s.
The two star-crossed Bohemian couples envelope the audience in their comic wrangling and eventual tragedies. Young poet Rodolfo (Robert Zimmerman) woos the beautiful but frail seamstress Mimi (Barbara Divis), while Musetta (Lea Woods Friedman) and Marcello (Corey McKern) spar comically with one another. Bohemian visions of the city of lights may be beautiful, but they’re also fraught with poverty and desperation. Their youthful hopes only last so long.
Akina warned Reagan that he has plans for the entire theater this time.
“It’s different, and so with all things different in Augusta, you have to take it a little bit slower. Mr. Akina probably would like to take it further than he will be able to do.”
Bringing the classical art form to audiences in a new way is important for opera, Reagan said.
“A lot of people think of opera as a dying art, and it is nothing like that. People are writing new operas every day,” she said.
Augusta Opera Artistic Director Les Reagan enthused about the art form he represents.
“It’s so on an upswing back,” he said, and he’s not just singing a pretty song. The National Endowment for the Arts most recent survey of public participation said that opera audiences grew by 46.6 percent between 1982 and 2002. That’s 20 years of growth, and Les credits innovators in the field.
Theater and opera companies aren’t modernizing the productions, like producers did when they based the hit Broadway musical “Rent” on the centuries-old storyline and music. They’re simply presenting them in new ways or making them more accessible for modern audiences.
As technology evolved, theaters such as the Imperial, were able to use superscript boards to offer English subtitles to performances in Italian, French and German. The San Diego Opera offers performances for sale through iTunes. The Metropolitan Opera broadcast six live performances straight to select movie theaters in high-definition, including Augusta’s Regal 20 Cinema.
On the organic side, opera companies added outreach programs in local school systems and special members-only meet-and-greets with their casts. The Fort Worth Opera even provides free child care for season ticket holders on performance nights.
And it’s becoming trendy to mix media. Film director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) and Broadway director Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”) have both tried their hands at staging and directing opera.
“I see it as part of my job to help update, upgrade, keep the interest, find new ways of building our audience base and our corporate and foundation support and individual support,” Les said.
He has some dreams, including dramatic 12-foot puppets for children’s performances. But economy necessitates that innovation be more organic than technological.
So the company has tried to keep ticket prices low. Student tickets for some seats are as low as $15 for a live performance, compared with $18 for the Met’s broadcasts. In recent productions, they spread the staging throughout the theater, so that even the “bad” seats are improved. The Reagans strive to bring in fresh talent with new ideas. Finally, they’ve partnered with the Augusta Children’s Chorale to feature some of their young singers in the performance.
But even the most avid theatergoer won’t return without one single element.
“It’s the music,” Les Reagan said, simply and emphatically. And no matter where in the theater Musetta begins the waltz “Quando Men Vo,” her passion will shatter every soul.
“La Boheme”
The Imperial Theatre
Friday and Saturday, May 11-12
8 p.m.

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