An introduction to La bohème

Here’s everything you need to know about ENO’s production of La bohème

It’s a heart-wrenching opera by Puccini

First performed on February 1, 1896, Puccini’s romantic opera is one of the best known in the repertoire. The story follows Bohemian writer Rodolfo and seamstress Mimì’s whirlwind romance, as both struggle with life as impoverished Parisians.

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As well as being one of the best-loved operas to date, the archetypal love story between Mimì and Rodolfo is one of the most famous. Find out more about one of opera’s greatest love stories, and many more, in our guide.

It’s based on a series of short stories by Henri Murger

French novelist Murger, wrote the semi-biographical work Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes from bohemian life), having experienced life as a poor writer living in Paris. The character Rodolphe (Rodolfo in the opera), is based on Murger himself, while Mimì was inspired on the author’s mistress, Lucile Louvet.

Depictions of Bohemian life were common in the nineteenth century. Although the original meaning referred to Romani travellers, the term was soon romanticised to describe the non-traditional lifestyle of aspiring artists and creatives.

Puccini wasn’t the only composer of the time giving Bohème operatic treatment

In the late 1800s Puccini was in the process of composing his next big opera after Manon Lescaut. Although he had decided on giving Giovanni Verga’s novel La Lupa operatic treatment, he soon abandoned the project in favour of Murger’s novel.

Composer Ruggero Leoncavallo (of Pagliacci fame) had already began working on his adaptation of Scènes, something that Puccini was well aware of, having already seen Leoncavallo’s libretto. The two composers publicly rowed over who should get to write their Bohème. In the end, both composers staged their works (although Puccini finished a year earlier), deciding that the public would judge their favourite; the rest is history.

Not familiar with Leoncavallo’s most famous opera, Pagliacci? Maybe you will recognise it from this famous Simpsons parody.

The story inspired the American Musical Rent

Jonathan Larson’s popular rock musical is based extensively on Puccini’s opera. Larson incorporated musical themes, character names and even words from the libretto into his musical. The main difference between the two works is the setting; Puccini’s Paris is replaced for modern-day New York. Because of this, Mimi’s illness in the opera (consumption, a prevalent illness in the nineteenth century) is substituted for HIV.