MetroWest Opera Presents
La Femme Bohème – The Original All-Female Version of Puccini’s La Bohème
Mosesian Center for the Arts
Black Box Theater
321 Arsenal Street
Watertown, MA 02472
Now in its 10th year, MetroWest Opera—a small, grass-roots professional opera company based in Boston, MA—is challenging notions of casting in opera—in particular the depiction of gender and sexuality—with the regional premiere of La Femme Bohème, the original all-female version of La Bohème. First produced by Local Artists, Local Opera (LOLA) in Austin, Texas, La Femme Bohème is a direct response to a growing issue within the world of opera: the lack of gender parity. At this very moment, many argue that we are experiencing the “golden age” of opera in the United States. There are dozens of music/voice/opera programs throughout the country, and the top programs are becoming ever more competitive. Every year the technical abilities of classical singers in the US grow by leaps and bounds. The talent is monumental. Yet the same disparity among singers continues to grow and grow and grow: namely the total imbalance between the number of male and female singers.
CREATING A SPACE FOR GENDER BALANCE
Within opera in the United States there is a gender imbalance on average of about three female singers for every one male singer. For MetroWest Opera, when it comes to representation at auditions, it is even more starkly disparate, with about 85% of singers being female, and only 15% being male. While one way to help fix the imbalance is to encourage more men to enter into the career of singing, the truly massive issue is the lack of gender parity in the repertoire that exists (and even the new repertoire being created right now). This is not specific to the performance medium of opera by any means. Whether you are talking about film, television, straight theatre, musical theatre, or opera there are generally always more male roles, and moreover, far more stage/speaking/singing time for men than women in all of these performance mediums. It just seems opera is slower to address this issue than the other mediums.
ALL HAIL FEMALE: ACKNOWLEDGING WOMEN IN ENTERTAINMENT
For the past ten years, MetroWest Opera—acutely aware of this gender imbalance—has strived to produce operas with a baseline of gender parity, and with the goal of actually pushing the imbalance to be more female than male. After ten seasons, we are running out of repertoire. Two seasons ago we paired two one-act operas, Puccini’s Suor Angelica with Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. The latter has a very small cast, a 1950’s husband and wife, and then a trio of singers (two men and one woman), already a slightly more male cast. Suor Angelica, on the other hand, is the only opera I can think of, that has a female-only cast, and therefore is often over-produced by small companies due to the plethora of female roles and female singers, and compounded by a shortage of (good) male singers.
NOT SO LITTLE WOMEN
Last season we produced Mark Adamo’s Little Women. This contemporary and poignant American opera based on the iconic novel by Louisa May Alcott provides more female roles than male roles (slightly) and definitively gives much more stage time to the women overall. But this is a total anomaly in the world of opera. For example, in the last 115 years only ONE female composer has been produced at the Met. Therefore, the issue isn’t just the availability of roles for women themselves. In addition to female singers there is a powerful need for female composers, lyricists, conductors, stage directors, AND producers. MetroWest Opera, in addition to gender parity within the productions themselves, also pushes for female representation at all levels of the company and production. Our Founder and Artistic Director is female, our Board Chair is female, our conductor for the last two seasons is female, our stage directors for the last five seasons have ALL been female. We are a not a company that pays lip-service. We make this goal a reality for our company each and every season; which brings us again back to La Femme Bohème.
About 18 months ago MetroWest Opera Artistic Director, Dana Varga, was mulling over what to present for our 2016/2017 Season. We had truly exhausted the operas with good female representation (that we are capable of producing at our company size). Dana came across this re-imagined all-female version of La Bohème out of Austin, Texas and voila there was our 2016/2017 Season production! As a company, we decided if the female roles are not there for us to produce, why don’t we take a well-known, classic opera, turn it on its head, and MAKE it all female. As my fierce feminist mother always said “if you don’t like the circumstances you are under…change the circumstances!” So, at MWO we changed the circumstances and made the decision to produce La Femme Bohème. But our journey didn’t stop just at gender parity.
IDENTIFYING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FEMALE THROUGH ART
We found ourselves asking “what does it mean to be female?” and by extension “who gets to create that definition of what female means?” These are questions so new to our public discourse, opera hasn’t really yet even had the chance to address them, namely being inclusive of the personal identifications of “transgender” and “gender non-conforming.” When it came to posting our audition notice in Fall 2016 we were worried that there could be some backlash from male singers if we said “auditions are open to female singers only,” and more importantly that we were not representing this much more fluid and expansive concept of what it is to be female. Serving on the Board of an LGBTQ Youth Non-Profit Organization, I pointed out to our leadership that traditional definitions of what is to be male/female and even the binary of male/female is currently being challenged on all fronts, and that it wasn’t any single person OR company’s place to define what it is to be male or female; that it really has to be up to the individual. Therefore, after thoughtful consideration we decided on this carefully worded audition notice: “Auditions for La Femme Bohème are open to all self-identified females. We encourage transgender women to apply.” It is this one word—‘self-identified’—that allowed us to still keep the focus on women without determining, for any person, what it means to be female.
HARMONY IN PLAY
Another potential challenge we didn’t foresee was the balance of voices. When you plan to do an all-female opera, you assume you’ll be casting all sopranos and mezzos (singers with traditionally higher register voices). Then you learn that when a male singer transitions to being female, their voice doesn’t actually change (though when one transitions from female to male, the voice does change). The news of our audition notice for La Femme Bohème made it all the way to Germany where an American transgender female opera singer, Lucia Lucas, currently working in Europe, reached out to us about her interest in being in our production. The short story is that our company does not have the resources to bring a singer all the way from Europe, but Lucia did open our eyes to how one defines ‘the female voice.’ In this email exchange, we learned that this self-identified female continues to have a baritone voice, and so we took on another challenge with discussions between our Artistic Director, Conductor and Stage Director: the discussion amounted to whether one mature, single baritone voice would blend well and/or potentially overpower the singers? We wondered if artistically would one massive baritone voice be too stark compared to our generally young sopranos and mezzos. After much discussion, the Production Team decided that if this opportunity presents itself we should work with it. We decided that if there were confusion over a Trans singer presenting as female and sounding like a traditionally male singer, that we would welcome the confusion and discomfort afforded to our audience. Now I’m not the type of person who doesn’t think art should entertain, it definitely should, but it also has to push the audience out of their comfort zone, otherwise you never elevate the art form. In other words, why can’t the changing discourse on what is to be trans or gender non-conforming be presented in a contemporary retelling of a classic romantic opera?! We know not to change one note of the Puccini’s score. It is the same stunning Puccini music we all love, just told through a modern and compelling lense.
Now since I’m not the stage director for this production, and rehearsals haven’t started yet, I can’t speak to exactly how specific characters will be depicted. I assume this will be a combination of the stage director’s vision and individual singers’ personality and interpretation. Some characters may be lesbian, some bi, so pansexual, and on the flip-side many will identify as cisgender female, some as transgender female, and some as gender non-conforming. Again, it will be up to the director and performers to determine this, and lastly up to the final character of any production—the audience—whose own life-experiences will inform their own impressions of this production, to determine how they see these characters depicted on stage.
The only way to find out is to make your way to the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA and see for yourself what IS La Femme Bohème!
Visit http://arsenalarts.org/music/#LaFemmeBoheme to grab yourself a ticket today!