La Boheme

In the process of translating an opera into supertitle format, my wife Kathy and I try to research the opera's historical and literary background so as to be able to present more than a simple translation. We make every effort to bring the libretto alive in order that the audience can enjoy an authentic, holistic experience in which the music, the drama, the lyrical beauty of the words, all play their own essential roles. Here we would like to share with you some of the fruits of our research into the background of today's opera. We hope that learning more about the backgrounds of the characters in La Boheme will allow you to feel yourself to be a participant in the action rather than merely a spectator.

La Boheme is one of the few operas whose main characters are taken from real life. The opera's material was adapted from Henri Murger's novel Scenes de la Vie de Boheme which is actually nothing but a series of sketches of the adventures of the author and some of his friends during their youthful days as aspiring artists in the Paris's Latin Quarter. The sketches which comprise the novel were published in the Paris journal Le Corsaire beginning in 1848; in November, 1849 a play, La Vie de Boheme, based on the sketches was produced at the Varietes Theatre and ran for a number of years.

Rodolfo the poet (Rodolphe in the novel) is Murger himself. The philosopher Colline is a combination of two persons, the "philosophers" Jean Wallon and Marc Trapadoux. It was Trapadoux who wore the famous coat to which Colline bids farewell in his fourth-act aria "Vecchia Zimarra." According to Murger, the voluminous pockets of this coat were stuffed full of books and papers, the tools of a philosopher's trade; his coat was his office. This explains why Colline's selling the coat in order to buy medicine for the dying Mimi was such a noble and compassionate gesture.

Schaunard, the musician, was, in real life, Alexandre Schanne. Murger had disguised his name as Shannard, and a printer's error changed this into Schaunard. He was actually a painter by profession, but eventually studied music and after singing in the choruses of some small theaters (think Opera Roanoke as a prototype) he became a professional violist.

Marcello (Marcel) was a fusion of two artists, Lazare Vasquez and a certain Tabar (first name unknown). The latter actually produced a painting of the Red Sea, which we have a chance to see in Act I of Boheme. In Murger, the painting is entitled "The Passage of the Red Sea by the Israelites." It was turned down, repeatedly, for exhibition at the Salon, so Marcel changed it slightly and retitled it "The Crossing of the Rubicon," but he failed to hoodwink the jury, and it was rejected again.

The female characters are a little more complicated. When Mimi tells Rodolfo, in the first act of the opera "Everybody calls me Mimi, but my name is Lucia," the audience generally hasn't an inkling. In Murger, however, there is a coquette named Lucille who goes by the name of Mimi and with whom Rodolphe has a brief encounter. However the incidents of the lost key and the death from consumption are taken from Murger's sketch of Francine who was the mistress of a sculptor Jacques, one of Murger's characters not appearing in the opera. Francine's death is considerably more tragic than Mimi's. She is sent to the hospital for her consumption and, when her lover comes to visit her the next day, he is informed that she is dead. A week later, upon meeting a nurse who works in the same hospital, he learns that Francine has not died; she has merely been transferred to a different ward. So he rushes back to the hospital, only to learn that Francine did indeed die, the night before!

Musette in Murger (Musetta in the opera) is Marcel's mistress. Her name is a joke--it comes from the fact that she loves to sing, if not always in tune ("musette"="accordion music" in French. We recall that, in Act III of the opera, Musetta helps defray some of her and Marcello's expenses at the inn by giving voice lessons to the guests.) Musette was a reckless spendthrift, a man-hunter and gold-digger whose continual infidelities drove Marcel to distraction (so she is faithfully portrayed in the opera). Eventually, she settles down as the wife of a respectable postmaster. "She is going to marry," Marcel tells Rodolphe one day. "Contre qui?" asks the latter. The real-life Musette was a certain Mme. Pierre Dupont who drowned when the boat she was taking from Marseilles to Algiers happened to sink. She was carrying with her 40,000 francs she had stolen from her husband.

As everyone knows, the action of Boheme takes place in Paris's Latin Quarter. This area had its origin in the thirteenth century when Robert de Sorbon created the college which evolved into the Universite' de Paris--"la Sorbonne." It was called the Latin Quarter because the common language of the students of that day--who came from all over Europe--was Latin. The Quarter eventually became the stomping-ground of all those interested in cultural activities (such as the characters we meet in the opera) students or not. But even these newcomers at least occasionally spoke in Latin. In Act II of Boheme, Puccini's librettists have Colline saying "Digna est intrari" (She is worthy to enter) when Rodolfo introduces Mimi to the other Bohemians in Act II. Schaunard agrees: "Ingrediat si necessit" (Let her come in if she must) to which Colline also agrees, using the Latin "accessit." We have left the Latin phrases intact in the supertitles in order to lend an air of authenticity to the stage portrayal of the Quarter.

Finally, Colline's aria "Vecchia Zimarra" was mentioned above. Even persons reasonably fluent in Italian may not know what a "zimarra" is. (I admit that neither Kathy nor I did.) However, we were educated in this matter by Prof. Giovanni Frosali of the University of Florence. According to him "zimarra" comes from the Spanish "zamarra" or from the Basque "zamar;" originally (16th century) it was a large cloak. It was both long and wide and often richly embroidered. Later (18th century) it became an indoor vest for men and by the 19th century a vestment for priests. For example, in I Promessi Sposi of Manzoni we read: "Don Abbondio was wrapped in an old 'zimarra'." So today a zimarra is a man's cloak, long, wide, and often worn-out, carrying the connotation of poverty or squalor.

Colline's "Vecchia zimarra" is, as we have already seen, a professional necessity to him. But it is more. He addresses it, according to our (almost literal) supertitle translation, as a sort of mythic hero:

"Old coat, listen: I remain below While you, my friend, must now to the sacred mountain go. And thus I give my thanks to the treasured garment which Has never bowed its back to the mighty or the rich..."

There is a pun in line two: Sacro monte (meaining "sacred mountain"), is Italian slang for "pawn shop." Colline sings the aria just before leaving to pawn his coat.

Paul Zweifel

For more on La Boheme, click here.

Further reading:
Arthur Moss and Evalyn Marvel, The Legend of the Latin Quarter, The Beechurst Press, New York (1946).

Henri Murger, The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, Societe des Beaux-Arts, Paris (1915).

Ernest Newman, Great Operas, Vol. II, Ch. 10, Vintage Books, New York (1958).