The L train was out-of-order and the night was freezing, but that didn’t stop a crowd from packing into a Bushwick warehouse earlier this month for the last weekend of Puccini’s La Bohème, staged by the Brooklyn-based LoftOpera.
Started in 2013 by Daniel Ellis-Ferris and Brianna Maury, the organization is aiming to bring opera to a community that might not ordinarily engage with the art form, which in its usual venues can seem untouchable, distant, and stuffy. LoftOpera also gives young performers a place to perform, and get paid.
“There were interesting shows happening in the Brooklyn loft music space, but opera was noticeably missing,” Ellis-Ferris said in an interview with Grey magazine. “Many of my opera singer friends told me that there were limited opportunities for young people to sing in the city.”
LoftOpera dedicated their first year to Mozart, tackling Don Giovanni last May and staging the Marriage of Figaro in Gowanus in November. La Bohème, the classic drama of artists attempting to survive in 1830s Paris, was transferred to a Brooklyn setting, its libretto slimmed down a bit, and its usually elaborate stagings left behind for benches on three sides of the 1896 warehouse off the Jefferson stop, the subtitles projected onto one of the worn brick walls. It wasn’t a total modernization, though; the music was still the enthralling emotional arias, and a full orchestra filled the broad space with layers of sound that you don’t ordinarily get from the cheap seats in the family circle of Lincoln Center (tickets were an affordable $20, and sold out).
But the real argument for LoftOpera’s success was the actors and voices. La Bohème is all about young artists struggling with money and love, surviving as painters and poets while burning their work for warmth, but it’s rare to see it performed by people who are actually living the lives of young artists in an unforgiving big city. The standout was Won Whi Choi as the writer Rodolfo, who captured each nuance of the daunting “Che gelida manina,” but the cast was universally strong and spirited, with Liana Guberman as the forlorn Mimi, Joshua Jeremiah as a commanding Marcello, and Larisa Martinez as the feisty Musetta. There was some silliness with the props (a giant balloon serving as the moon that broke the actors out of character, an actual Chekov’s gun, for some reason), and it was difficult to see at times, with the cast at the same level as the audience, yet the intensity of being so close to the music probably convinced a lot of people of opera’s potential accessibility.
It might seem like a foolhardy time to start an opera company — in the wake of the closure of the New York City Opera last fall and the Bowery’s Amato Opera in 2009. On the other hand, it’s an exciting time to do so, and it could inspire people who have no interest in or access to the formality of the other opera options (basically the Met right now) to give the music a chance. More importantly, LoftOpera is offering some incredible singers and musicians a stage, even if it’s a threadbare rented loft for the night.
LoftOpera’s La Bohème took place February 21 through March 1 at The 1896 (215 Ingraham Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn).