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La bohème: Designing the set

Our production of La bohème is a classic. It is one of the longest running shows in Opera North’s history, and it’s easy to see why!

Here, we take a closer look at the set and what influenced the original designs (back in 1993), from Polaroid pictures to Pablo Picasso, with designer Anthony Ward

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The bohemians (Acts I & IV)

Our production of La bohème was inspired by the idea of finding some of old photographs which each represent something enormous that happened in your life. Anthony Ward says “the set for every scene in the show sits within a large white frame which tilts inwards toward the stage. This was specifically designed to create the effect of each scene being a Polaroid picture – a pivotal moment in time, in one’s youth, captured and immortalised.”

La bohème Act I showing the Polaroid picture frame and Picasso-inspired stove (right), 2014 © Robert Workman

Early model for La bohème Act I, showing the stove (right) and the battered fridge and sink (left) © Anthony Ward

The four ‘bohemians’ – Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline – traditionally live in a ‘garret’ (an attic or small space at the top of a house). Ours is a little different, and is “heavily influenced by the idea of an artist’s studio. If we look at Francis Bacon’s studio, the walls are covered erratically in paint as a result of testing colours and of frantic creativity – that is what painters do, they make mess! The set of La bohème is randomly paint spattered in an eclectic combination of colours, with paint pot rings marking the floor.”

Marcello, Schaunard, Colline, Benoit and Rodolfo in La bohème Act I, 2014 © Robert Workman

“The set is also influenced by the various Paris studios of Pablo Picasso. The huge stove featured in the set is directly taken from the stove that stood in Picasso’s attic studio at Rue des Grands Augustins. It is crammed with odds and ends too – bits of art, books, two halves of a plastic woman – reflecting the clutter of miscellaneous items visible in Picasso’s studios.

However, we didn’t want to make the set so abstract and ‘iconic’ that it didn’t look like real life anymore. The battered fridge on the left, and the sink that would be used for painting AND washing up (or not washing!) in are very important as gritty domestic details that portray a real hand-to-mouth student existence.”

Pablo Picasso’s studio at Rue des Grands Augustins, Paris, 1944 © Brassai

Rodolfo and Marcello in La bohème Act I, 2014 © Robert Workman

Café Momus (Act II)

“The Act II café scene is dominated by a backdrop of two faces – a couple about to kiss. This idea of these two faces representing epic love was partially inspired by Doisneau’s iconic photograph, The Kiss, which has become an internationally recognised symbol of young love in Paris. We cropped it very closely to create an intensity that reflects the passionate, totally immersing, living for the moment love of Mimì and Rodolfo.”

Le Baiser de L'Hotel de Ville, Paris, 1950 © Robert Doisneau

Chorus and children of La bohème Act II showing the 'kiss' backdrop, 2014 © Robert Workman

“The other key feature of the set for both Acts II and III is a red banquette (upholstered bench along a wall) that revolves. Its revolving nature allows two different spaces to co-exist on the stage, creating a split screen effect. When it is at right angles to the front of stage, the audience can see the Parisians and children outside on the street and the friends inside the Café Momus at the same time.

The colour red also dominates the set of the café, and in fact features heavily throughout the design of the whole production, to highlight the passion and youthfulness of La bohème as a piece. It also adds a sense of festivity, as Acts I and II take place during the Christmas period.”

Musetta and Alcindoro in La bohème Act II on the outside of the banquette, 2014 © Robert Workman

Marcello, Mimì and Rodolfo on the banquette in La bohème Act II, 2014 © Robert Workman

Outside (Act III)

Act III opens and immediately has a much bleaker tone. Set several weeks later, Christmas decorations have been taken down and are packed up into boxes. Graffiti on the wall outside the bar reads ‘RÊVÉ’ (French for ‘dream’), which seems ironic as the harsh realities of life begin to hit home for our bohemians. This was directly inspired by photographer Ed van der Elsken’s work in Paris in the 1950s.

Vali à St-Germain-des-Prés (Rêve), 1952 © Ed van der Elsken / Nederlands Fotomuseum

Mimì and Marcello in La bohème Act III, 2014 © Robert Workman


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