Madison Opera will make us happy to cry again

Madison Opera will make us happy to cry again
Eleni Calenos as Mimi in a previous production of 'La Boheme.'

I’m about to fall in love again.

It will happen sometime between 8 and 8:30 p.m. this Friday at the Overture Center. In fact, I’m likely to be smitten even before the irresistible heroine appears onstage. And I can thank Madison Opera and its season-opening production of Puccini’s La Bohème for it.

The first time it hit me was on a recording in the early 1970s, featuring Metropolitan Opera stars of the day, and a short time later I saw the landmark production of Franco Zeffirelli in that same vaunted shrine at Lincoln Center. Later on I added the incredibly lyric recording of Jussi Bjoerling and Victoria de los Angeles, and later saw two performances at Los Angeles Opera. Other video versions followed.

But that’s the beauty of this incredible work: Any so-called definitive performance doesn’t detract from any future experiences. Puccini’s tale of the four Bohemian friends and the star-crossed love affairs of Rodolfo the poet and Marcello the painter pulls you in during the first fifteen minutes, and just doesn’t let go.

The director of this production, David Lefkowich, knows this for himself. He saw the legendary Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni at the Lyric Opera of Chicago years ago, but it is the spell of the work itself that creates the lifelong attraction.

“Even when you know the ending, you’re thinking about the present moment as you watch the opera. I try to stretch the tension—and provide a few surprises. My job is to provide a lively, evocative staging that serves the story and impacts both the first-time attender and the veteran listener.”

Lefkowich spoke about his unusual career path at the Madison Opera offices last week between rehearsals. As a child he “hated opera. My mother would turn on the radio on Saturdays to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and say ‘you can leave the room, but you cannot change the station.'”

Some years later his mother insisted he accompany her to a performance of The Daughter of the Regiment at Glimmerglass Opera, about an hour’s drive from their home near Albany, New York. Lefkowich was glad she overcame his extreme reluctance “because I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.” The experience was prescient as well: After directing Madison Opera’s first foray into Handel with Alcis and  Galatea, Lefkowich returned to the Overture Center to direct Donizetti’s effervescent romp.

In high school, Lefkowich thought he was applying for a summer immersion program in theater at Northwestern University, but found himself in a music program that gave him a new perspective on opera’s synergistic mix of theater and music. The experience led him to attend Northwestern, and a few years later, found himself again on the other side of the footlights at Glimmerglass. What seemed a casual offer to direct a couple of scenes eventually led to City Opera and a position as an assistant at the Met. But Bohème, for all its ubiquitous popularity, remained at a coy distance.

“I came to Bohème late, not even assisting on it for years, and eventually directing it in 2013. Now that I’ve done it a couple of times, my approach is less a ‘re-conception’ than simply going deeper into the material. The first half of Act 4, for example, is pure humor, and then suddenly we’re in the middle of this situation where each character is struggling with how to deal with death in a personal way for the first time. People who know the opera will love it all over again, and if you’re a first-timer, all the better. After all, we’re talking about operatic bliss!”

And oh yes, one last word of advice if you’re an operatic rookie: Don’t forget the tissues!

Madison Opera presents Puccini’s La Bohème at 8 p.m. Friday, November 13 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 15 at Overture Hall.