La bohème is about youth, love, poetry and survival. What makes this opera beloved now as much as 120 years ago are the characters. In them we recognize parts of ourselves and can all relate to the plight of the artist, whether or not we are artists ourselves. Our craving to feel alive and experience life at its most exciting and beautiful is reflected in the characters that Giacomo Puccini and his librettists created, inspired by Frenchman Henri Murger’s stories in the mid-19th century.
The choice of words in La bohème stem directly from Murger’s texts. Rodolfo’s famous aria “Che gelida manina” (What a cold hand) comes from Murger’s specific description of the poet’s first meeting with the grisette: “But what contributed above all to make Rodolphe madly in love with Mademoiselle Mimi were her hands, which in spite of household cares, she managed to keep as white as those of the Goddess of Idleness.” Schaunard’s arrogance, as another example, perhaps stems from his aristocratic background that, while not made obvious in the opera, is permeated throughout Murger’s compilation of stories. Musette, during personal reflection, notes, “each of my loves is a verse, but Marcel is the refrain.” The simplicity of the characters depends on their basic need to survive in their given circumstances, while at the same time seizing the moment to find pleasure, love and adventure.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Murger’s text is the author’s own self-awareness as to what it truly means to be an artist, or rather what it should not be, and the way that is translated in Puccini’s work. In one of the final stories, Marcel reflects, “It is not enough to wear a summer coat in December to have talent; one can be a real poet or artist whilst going about well shot and eating three meals a day…we are old, my dear fellow; we have lived too fast.” In other words, an artist need not suffer. And yet there is suffering in both Murger’s words and in Puccini’s score. How poignant for Puccini to make reference to a coat, most significantly in the final moments of the opera, perhaps to highlight the discovery that material and vain concerns have no significance in defining human existence, much as Murger expressed.
What we can take away from this masterpiece in our own time is easy to pin down. La bohème survives because it is the epitome of youth tainted by harsh socio-economic realities and evokes in us a desire to be as free as the Bohemians portrayed on the stage. And with Mimi’s young demise we find ourselves lamenting Rodolfo’s loss because of our desire to find love for longer than just a passing moment. Perhaps it is the tragic conclusion of La bohème that inspires us to live each moment to the fullest. We are made aware that time is short and, in Murger’s words, “A clock is a domestic foe who implacably reckons up to your existence hour by hour, minute by minute, and says to you every moment, ‘Here is a fraction of your life gone.’”