La bohème on the Mall

Arts / Article

By Michael Bolton, Opera Company of Philadelphia

On Saturday, October 6, 2012 the Opera Company of Philadelphia treated 2,500 area residents to La bohème on the Mall, a free, open-air broadcast at Independence National Historical Park of the Company’s season-opening production of Puccini’s beloved opera.

For the second consecutive year, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation sponsored this HD opera initiative. Opera aficionados and neophytes from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds came together to watch the opera in the shadow of the Liberty Bell and on grounds once treaded by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and hundreds of others from our nation’s history.

Last season, the Opera Company opened the arts season in Philadelphia with Bizet’s Carmen, which was simulcast live from the Academy of Music to Independence Mall.  The event was met with unexpected rain showers, despite initial favorable forecasts.  Still, attendees were so captivated by the opera that hundreds stayed to the very end of the live event to see the seductive Carmen meet her doom.

This year, the Opera Company planned to present a live simulcast of the season’s opening night: a spectacular new Davide Livermore production of Puccini’s La bohème.  Mr. Livermore’s concept used digital projections of art from the late 1800s as the opera’s backdrop; the bohemians would live within the art of their time.  The production was a unique collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the newly opened Barnes Foundation and highlighted Impressionist and modern art from the collections of both celebrated Philadelphia museums.

Due to scheduling complications, a live simulcast of the opera became impossible. The only option was to record the opening night performance and broadcast the opera on the following weekend. OCP used the challenge to its advantage.  The delay allowed for minor edits to the video before the broadcast one week later. Having the broadcast on a Saturday night made the event more manageable for attendees, too, who could avoid running to the Mall after a busy work day. The broadcast also eliminated two lengthy intermissions, which helped patron retention.

Still, there was the issue of weather.  OCP staff had tracked the forecast throughout the week on an almost hourly basis.  With a slight probability of rain, alternate “worse-case scenario” plans were secured. Almost 5,000 people had registered to attend the broadcast, but given the questionable forecast, how many people would show up? Thankfully, by 4:00 p.m. on Saturday evening, the clouds had parted and not a single drop of rain was to be felt. After a collective sigh of relief among the staff and patrons, the Opera Company of Philadelphia welcomed 2,500 attendees to La bohème on the Mall.

One fringe benefit of the broadcast was that the entire OCP family could be on site at Independence National Historic al Park. Cast and crew greeted patrons and wore tee-shirts with the words “ARTIST and CREW” emblazoned on the front.  This identifier was an instant conversation starter and attendees chatted with artists who shared behind-the-scenes stories and points of interest in the production.

Given the clement weather, there was significant foot traffic in the historic area of the city.  Curious passersby asked about the big HD screen and quite a few people sat down and enjoyed the broadcast.  At each of three entrance points on the Mall attendee information was captured.  Some had registered in advance and used a print-at-home ticket while others registered on site.

The pre-curtain entertainment included behind-the-scenes video interviews with the artists. The company’s Knight Foundation Random Act of Culture videos from Geno’s Steaks, Ikea, 30th Street Station and Reading Terminal Market were a popular addition to the broadcast. Attendees took part in social media and Tweeted about the event while engaging in online polls run through Facebook and the OCPBoheme iPhone app.  Glow in the dark necklaces, provided by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation, added to the festivities.

When the opera was ready to begin, the audience was greeted by Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, Independence National Historical Park Superintendent Cynthia MacLeod, and Opera Company of Philadelphia General Director and President David B. Devan.

As darkness descended upon the area, new and old opera lovers were transported to Paris in 1896 to see the story of the poet Rodolfo and his beloved Mimì.  They were enchanted by the art-inspired production and thrilled by the singing of the cast, including Bryan Hymel, Norah Amsellem, Troy Cook, and Leah Partridge, all of whom were in attendance to watch themselves on the big screen.

When the opera was over, thousands of appreciative audience members left Independence Mall, transformed by what they had seen. One patron commented, “We and our grandaughters (13 and 17 years) were thrilled by the opera and the whole experience. The singers had extraordinary voices. Using the art from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes as part of La bohème was a beautiful and unique idea. We also loved viewing Random Acts of Culture. Thanks for entertaining us before the opera and during intermission. After we were leaving, our granddaughters asked to be taken someday to a live opera. We’re looking forward to it and also returning to Opera on the Mall.  Thank you, thank you.”

The Opera Company of Philadelphia and everyone in the Philadelphia region gives the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation a heart-felt “Thank You!” for funding La bohème on the Mall.  This program allowed the Company to reach audiences who may never be able to purchase tickets to an Opera Company of Philadelphia performance, introduced the art form to hundreds of new opera lovers, and galvanized the city through the art-inspired production and the chance to take part in this communal experience.