Notes Towards A Steampunk La Bohème
Updated: Dec 30, 2022
If I have a style (which, alas, I increasingly do as I stagnate away from being a young artist, and get too few opportunities to experiment beyond that niche), a key part of it is drawing elements from rhyming forms together.
With that: STEAMPUNK LA BOHÈME.
It is very likely that some readers will understand 50% of that, and need to Google the other half. Please do so, and then come back.
La Bohème is an opera set in Paris, around 1830, though written in the heart of the fin-de-siecle (the turn of the 19th to the 20th century). It speaks to both, in particular as a work set at the heart of the thriving French Empire. It also has some scenes at Christmas, and thus is Seasonally Appropriate for this blog.
Steampunk as a form shares something in common with opera: its core aesthetics are rooted in an imperial age, and it does not always engage with that very happily. The more -punk end of it does, however.
This happy overlap between imperial-focused forms entertains me. Because steampunk offers us the chance to drag old tropes of imperialism and step away from them just enough to give them a fresh glance.
Now, La Bohème is undoubtedly an opera people put on because they want to make money [which is a shame, because Tosca requires fewer people and, to my taste, is better]. You can do this in one of two ways:
1. Chocolate box. Make it lovely in every possible way, and so terribly sad at the end.
2. Art. Such art. Emphasise the essential tragedy at the heart of Rodolfo slowly realising that he does, in fact, genuinely love Mimi. Maybe try and add a few layers that aren’t really there in Puccini, because he’s a composer who loves chocolate boxes.
A theoretical 3. exists, which is the concept production, but I’m assuming that anybody putting on La Bohème wants money and an easily-sellable show.
Our steampunk version is aiming squarely at 2. It can’t be 1, because if our hook is empire, then it’s going to catch in a very awkward area.
What Are We Trying To Do?
Essentially, to engage with what La Bohème is (a story about poverty slowly killing people in love) and its context (the metropole of a large Empire rooted in a white supremacist ‘civilising mission’). Yes, I am blurring the lines between the French and British Empires here, but in an opera production I don’t think it’s worth getting too fussy about realism.
Verismo realism (that of La Bohème) is about emotional reality, not naturalistic reality.
To give an example:
I’ve seen period productions of La Bohème with non-white cast members walking happily through a mainly-white Paris. I’ve yet to see one that seemed to explicitly engage with that aspect of it. One wonders whether we are supposed to imagine this Paris as being not-racist (perhaps in the Latin Quarter?), these characters as white, or perhaps it is
I suspect we are not meant to think at all. Partly because that’s an uncomfortable place to go with a performer, and partly because that’s likely uncomfortable for an audience out to have a good time at a very bankable opera.
But I’d be interested in considering, say, how a non-white Musetta plays into exoticism in French art and literature of the period. If everybody (usually white, given the demographics of most opera choruses) stares at her when she walks down the street, is that not different if she is of a different ethnicity to them; one associated with the French colonies?
All of this is to say that there are imperial aspects to La Bohème that we shy away from. Later on, I’ll argue that they actually add to the emotional and artistic effect.
Aspects of shopping, poverty, and more all come into play here. It is a period of gross inequality and desperation.
When Is La Bohème?
If we set it as the composer intended, this is Paris a few years before the failed revolution depicted in Les Miserables; a mere decade and a half after Napoleon’s final defeat, when the government still watched carefully for dissenters.
If we set it when it was written (the 1890s), Paris remains grossly unequal, though thoroughly rebuilt after the attempted uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871 (to which many fabric workers contributed), and still bitter about the victory of Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War.
Both, of course, feature a France that is profiting hugely from the raw materials extracted from her colonies; raw materials that can be seen in lavish boulevards and parades of soldiers.
In either likely setting of our La Bohème, the parade of soldiers through the Latin Quarter is not merely festive fun. It’s also a reminder that, yes, if the Latin Quarter rises up against the state, these same soldiers will crush the rebellion.
What Steampunk Can Offer
Steampunk offers the chance for a more imaginative world. We can create clear visual signifiers, rather than looking at a tatty waistcoat and trying to work out if it indicates poverty, period fashion, or otherwise.
Perhaps some people have golden, sparkling ornaments on their persons, while others have bent and crumbling iron with crude and slowly-moving gears.
Perhaps rather than the literal realities of Empire, we can see desperate robots scuttling to supply the shops and cafés of Act 2.
Perhaps we see more of the smoke of an industrial city, and the system that slowly destroys our protagonists is visible, and visibly inhuman. A vast machine, slowly eating up everything of value to keep itself going.
I like genre fiction, because it gives us clear visual metaphors. And clear visual metaphors give us a way to guide the audience into both thought and feeling.
What Thought, What Feeling?
This is the core of my argument for a steampunk La Bohème: the tragedy is meant to be a tragedy of industrialisation and empire.
We forget that easily in chocolate box productions. It makes the show weaker.
Without the uncaring system behind them, Rodolfo and Mimi’s tragedy takes place on a merely personal level. It’s still sad, because Rodolfo is an awful person in Act 1 and changes too late, but it’s not the whole story that an original audience might have understood.
Contrast that with our steampunk production. At the beginning, Rodolfo is literally part-inhuman, bound by clockwork into the bourgeois society he has been raised in by his rich uncle. Mimi greases the wheels of that machine, yet is too expendable to be given enough in exchange. We see that clockwork all around them both; a vast machine that doesn’t care about the glittering light of humanity within it.
By the end, we see less and less of that clockwork in him; it does not help him with his actual challenge.
After all, we mustn’t forget that, while late Romantic and conservative, Puccini is still a Romantic emotions-against-social-rules storyteller.
If we see that Rodolfo’s tragedy is not merely personal, but systemic, then there is a great deal of room for empathy in our own times, when people are increasingly forced to make decisions about moving in together, having children, heating their homes and more by a lack of resources and a system that is not helping them.
Where we might struggle to see that in the 19th century, and dislike seeing it in our own, the imagined worlds of steampunk might offer us a door.
As might many other possible productions. But I liked writing this one out.