La bohème was coloured by Puccini’s own experiences whilst living as a penniless student at the Milan Conservatoire (1880–1883).
He wrote “I lived that Bohème, when there wasn’t yet any thought stirring in my brain of seeking the theme of an opera.” The entertaining real-life incidents recorded in his letters make it clear that Puccini could relate to his four bohemians, living hand-to-mouth in their freezing garret, outwitting their creditors and falling in and out of love…
— Puccini’s landlord was a post office official, and had so little trust in his ability to pay the rent that he would open Puccini’s letters which contained the monthly instalments of his scholarship, and take the rent money out himself.
— The following year, Puccini shared his digs with fellow musician Mascagni, future composer of the hugely successful opera Cavalleria Rusticana. When Puccini’s creditors visited him, he would hide in the wardrobe while Mascagni told them he had gone out, and vice versa when Mascagni’s creditors called the next day. Similar creativity in avoiding paying up features in Act I of the opera, where the four bohemians throw Benoît the landlord out of their apartment empty-handed, having got him drunk…
— Puccini and Mascagni’s lack of funds would also often force them to cook in their room, which was strictly against the rules of their landlord, so in order to drown any noise caused by the clatter of plates, Puccini would improvise on the piano as loudly as possible!
Ottagono della Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, 1880 © Giacomo Brogi
— Puccini once pawned his only coat in order to be able to take out a young ballet dancer from La Scala. This is poignantly reminiscent of Act IV of La bohème, in which Colline pawns his beloved coat, the final tie to warmth and comfort, in order to help the dying Mimì.
— As the bohemians of the opera would take themselves to the Café Momus on an evening out, so Puccini, Mascagni and their girlfriends would haunt the cafés of Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, now one of the world’s oldest shopping malls, but then newly built and the latest ‘place to be’. There, the proprietor kept an account for them which required many months of repeated reminders before it was settled!
Emyr Wyn Jones as Colline © Richard H. Smith