The Genesis of LA BOHÈME

by: Stephen Siff

Cleveland Opera, 1988
Photo by A.J. Pantsios

The story of LA BOHÈME was based on the popular novel Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life), by Henri Murger. Henri Murger wrote this novel when he was a poor writer living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840's. The novel, which originally appeared as a series of stories in a small Parisian newspaper, is a collection of short, funny tales about Henri and his friends. The group of struggling artists that made up Henri's group loved eating and drinking in cafés, but rarely had money to pay the check. They were all very poor, but indulged in making the most of the present without worrying about the future.

Scènes de la Vie de Bohème was a very popular novel, but it didn't bring Murger much money. Legend has it that when the French playwright Theodore Barriere came to visit Murger in his tiny apartment to discuss how to transform the collection of stories into a play, Murger was lying in bed, but vehemently denied that he was sick. When Barriere suggested that the two continue their discussion in a café, the chagrined Murger apologetically admitted that he couldn't; he had lent his only pair of pants to a friend, and was forced to wait in bed until they were returned.

Barriere's play, produced in Paris in 1849, was an immediate success. Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, with its double love story and contemporary setting, was ripe for operatic treatment. Soon two famous composers were working on operas of Scènes de la Vie de Bohème: Giacomo Puccini and Ruggiero Leoncavallo. Leoncavallo and Puccini were old friends. When they were each working on previous operas, they had taken summer cottages next to each other, and playfully teased each other by hanging banners about their operas from opposing windows. The competition, however, became more serious. Leoncavallo was first to begin working on an opera based on Murger's book. When Puccini found out about Leoncavallo's project he too became quite taken with the idea, and contacted Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica to work on a libretto (the words for the opera) for LA BOHÈME under an oath of secrecy.

It was not long, however, before Leoncavallo, and all of Italy, found out that Puccini was working on his own version of LA BOHÈME. Leoncavallo and Puccini each publicly claimed that he had begun work on a Bohème opera first. On March 20, 1893, Puccini issued a public challenge in the Italian journal Corriere della sera: "Let him compose, I will compose, the public will judge." The composers' friendship quickly disintegrated into hostility and contempt.

Puccini completed his opera first, and it premiered on February 1, 1896 under the direction of the up and coming young conductor Arturo Toscanini. Puccini and his publisher Giulio Ricordi decided to hold the premiere in the Teatro Regio in Turin, despite Puccini's disdain for the theatre's muffled acoustics, because they hoped that it was far enough away from Milan to avoid a public demonstration by the Milan-based publishing house of Sonzogna, which employed Leoncavallo.

Opening night was a grand affair, with members of the royal family in the audience. The opera was received well by the audience. "But even that night," Puccini would recall years later,

... between the acts, in the corridors and backstage, I heard whispering around me: 'Poor Puccini! This is an opera that won't long survive.' I felt in me a sadness, a melancholy, a desire to cry ... I spent a bad night. And the next morning, I received the spiteful greeting of the newspapers.

In the following day's Gazzeta Piemontese, opera critic Carlo Bersezio predicted that,

Just as LA BOHÈME leaves slight impression in the spirit of listeners, so will it leave a scant trace in the history of our opera, and the author would be well advised to consider it a passing error.

Quite to the contrary, LA BOHÈME has proved itself among the most enduring operas ever written. By its third performance, there was such an ovation that the entire death scene had to be repeated. LA BOHÈME was translated into four languages by 1898, and selections of its music quickly became popular with military bands. While it was slow to gain critical respect, it is presently second only to Aida in number of performances at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. By 1960, LA BOHÈME had already been performed at The Met alone more than 360 times. Leoncavallo's opera opened in June 1897 to positive reviews, but it has become largely forgotten, overshadowed by the continued popularity of Puccini's opera.

return to the Bohème home page
Where in the Bohemian World do you want to go next?