Opera Australia Blog

Cheat Sheet: La Bohème

Ji-Min Park and Nicole Car in Opera Australia's 2014 Sydney production of La bohème. Photo by Branco Gaica

Ji-Min Park and Nicole Car in Opera Australia’s 2014 Sydney production of La bohème. Photo by Branco Gaica.

Everything you need to know about one of the world’s most popular operas.

Who was the composer?

Giacomo Puccini.

You know you’re listening to Puccini when you have: big sweeping tuneful melodies combined with stories about ordinary people.

The composer himself once said his success was due to putting “great sorrows in little souls”.

What’s the story?


Opera Australia’s 2014 Sydney production of La bohème. Photo by Branco Gaica.

A poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher walk into a bar (no really!) to celebrate a sudden windfall in a lean winter. It’s Christmas Eve, and the poet has just felt the first pangs of great love. When a seamstress knocks on his door searching for candlelight, the pair fall in love faster than she can sing “Yes, they call me Mimì…”

Between the ideals of love and art and the cruel realities of cold winters, bitter jealousies and empty pockets, two sets of lovers are trying to find their way.

By the time the curtain falls, you’ll know the answer to an eternal question:

Is love enough?

That sounds familiar…

It’s a common tale! La Bohème has inspired all kinds of adaptations.

Seen RENT? Jonathan Larson’s 1996 smash-hit musical borrows several characters and plotlines from Puccini’s smash-hit opera. Baz Luhrmann’s award-winning film Moulin Rouge also borrows a bit from the Puccini classic (that Luhrmann made his name directing for Opera Australia in 1990).

Puccini even borrowed some of his own memories. The composer was a poor student in his youth, living a life very similar to the young bohemians of his opera. He wrote in his diary:

“I lived that bohème, when there wasn’t yet any thought in my brain of seeking the theme of an opera…”

Who are the main players?


Photos by Branco Gaica

The big hit:

‘Musetta’s Waltz’ is a standout in the score.

You might know the 1959 Della Reese pop song, ‘Don’t You Know’ – based on Musetta’s famous tune. It was also the theme song for the film Moonstruck and is often referenced in movies, television programs and advertisements.

Something to listen for:

Puccini sets the scene with music, so listen out for sound effects. At the beginning of Act III as snow begins to fall on stage, the flutes and the harp take up a beautiful melody. Soak it up – it captures the feeling of fresh snow flakes on cold noses.

What’s new in this production?

Director Gale Edwards has moved the action to 1930s Berlin, among the social upheaval of the last months of the Weimar Republic. It’s a gift to the designers (sets – Brian Thomson,  costumes – Julie Lynch), who have drawn a world of sumptuous velvet and glittering fairy lights. Marcello paints his work upon the walls of the bohemian’s freezing garret, while the Cafe Momus is a hedonistic wonder of revolving balconies, fringes and fishnets.

A little history

Original poster for "La bohème", illustrated by Adolfo Hohenstein and published in 1896.

Original poster for “La bohème”, illustrated by Adolfo Hohenstein and published in 1896.

Puccini based his opera on a novel and then play by Henri Murger, following the lives and deaths of young Bohemians living in Paris’ Latin Quarter in the 1840s. The libretto, written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, combines a few of the characters and is a mostly original text.

It premièred in Turin in 1896 and was immediately successful. By 1900, it had been performed in many of the leading opera houses across Europe and the Americas by some of the stars of the day. Dame Nellie Melba sang Mimi for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

The young Arturo Toscanini conducted the world première.

Conversation Starters for the Bathroom Queue

  • While the opera has four acts, Puccini didn’t call them “acts”. He thought of them as “images”.
  • Puccini’s opera omitted one of the acts prepared by the librettists. In the missing act, Mimi dances with a Viscount at a party and thus sets the scene for Rodolfo’s terrible jealousy in Act III.

More info and tickets are available here.

5 Responses to “Cheat Sheet: La Bohème”

  1. Christine Harris

    Thank you for the “cheat sheet” I found it very interesting and informative.

  2. Eva

    Great review, interesting new insights!
    Love being here in Sydney on New Year eve!

    La Boeheme in Vienna, Austria at the Opera House there and now in Sydney! Can’t go better for us!

  3. Barbara Hutchinson

    Thank you for message for
    La Boheme. Had been doing some homework but this is special including photos and the Cheat Sheet.


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