Milwaukee Ballet goes to the opera… or vice-versa
Michael Pink's latest narrative ballet is based on Puccini's "La Boheme," with a wordless score arranged by Andrews Sill.
Andrews Sill wasn’t so sure about transforming Puccini’s La Boheme, the most famous and beloved opera in the world, into a score for Michael Pink’s Milwaukee Ballet production, which premieres Thursday (Oct. 18).
“I thought – won’t it be odd without the singing?” Sill said, from his office at the New York City Ballet, where he is interim music director. His voice emanated from a speaker phone in the office of Michael Pink, artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet, during a joint interview. Sill, also MBC’s music director, continued: “Then I remembered I’d had an LP, ‘Puccini Without Words,’ as a kid. I found it on Amazon.”
Sill referred to an album by Andre Kostelanetz and his Orchestra, but a quick search revealed a number of such albums by a variety of ensembles. And back in the day, Puccini and his publishers made a good bit of money from all sorts of arrangements of the hit tunes from his operas. Ample historical precedent made Sill comfortable with this project. He found that trimming out the recitative left a compact, coherent score. And without the flex required for expressive singing, Puccini’s melodies proved buoyant and dancy.
“The music works on its own,” Sill said. “Usually, Puccini doubles the voice line in the orchestra.”
“It starts to sound like an oboe concerto, after a while,” Pink said, about the frequent doublings. Pink, by the way, is a well-trained musician and plays the piano. Sill said that the choreographer’s ability to make sense of musical score made his task and their communication much easier.
The words will be missing, but they remained on Pink’s mind throughout the creative process.
“They’re right there on paper,” Pink said, “so why not let them guide the choreography? As for the expressive points, what a singer can do with a high C a dancer can do with physicality.”
You might say that Pink added some words, after a fashion. Puccini’s librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, wrote one scene to help explain Rodolfo’s jealousy over and anger toward Mimi, which comes off as mystifying and arbitrary in the opera. The scene involved a party at Musetta’s, at which Mimi flirts shamelessly with a wealthy nobleman. Puccini cut the scene and wrote no music for it. Sill rummaged through Puccini’s catalog and found fitting passages in a pair of rarely performed symphonic works.
Pink added the scene to clarify the characters’ motivations and to round out Mimi. In most opera productions, she’s an innocent little flower cruelly cut down by consumption. Period.
“I think my Mimi is more credible,” Pink said. “We don’t assume that she’s just a victim. She’s not averse to flirting. These are Parisian Bohemians in their 20s. Life wasn’t serious, it was life, liberty and love. They express themselves. They would have been promiscuous and given to falling in and out of love. Mimi and Rodolfo can’t live together and they can’t live apart.”
Puccini and his librettists wrote their opera in the mid-1890s, after Henry Murger’s 1845 Scènes de la vie de bohème. Pink has moved it to the 1950s, for reasons both practical and aesthetic. The heavy, structured 19th-century clothing encumbers dancers; the fitted French fashions of the 1950s are fabulous, especially on dancers.
“They’re living through a mild European winter,” Pink said. “Jackets and scarves. [Costume designer] Paul Daigle and [costume manager] Mary Piering spent weeks on a shopping spree from here to Chicago, visiting thrift shops and buying clothing. They found so many fabulous bits of vintage attire.
“I cadged the time period from the Baz Luhrmann production for Australian Opera. Paris in the 1950s didn’t look all that different from Paris in the 19th century.”
And la vie bohème is always la vie bohème.
Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18-21. Tickets start at $30 online, or call 414-902-2103.