Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Back With Bohéme

By Margaret Regan

MARCH 15, 1999:  JOHN FOWLER IS not exactly unfamiliar with La Bohème, the beloved Puccini opera that Arizona Opera is mounting this weekend in Tucson.

"I'm singing Rodolfo," he reported during a break from rehearsals last week. "I've done about 220 performances of Rodolfo before, all over the world, at the Met (in New York), at New York City Opera, in Vienna, in Hamburg.

"You tend to sing the parts you're good at. Another way of putting it is that you keep singing it until you get it right."

As familiar as the story of Puccini's hapless bohemians is to Fowler, it lately has penetrated into the world outside opera as well. Jonathan Larson adapted the tale for his musical Rent, transposing Paris' Latin Quarter into New York's East Village. Fowler's poet Rodolfo became the HIV-positive punk rocker Roger; his consumptive love Mimi metamorphosed into Roger's beloved, AIDS-stricken Mimi. Even the songs of the smash hit musical, which played Tucson in November, are keyed to the opera's arias and récitifs. All this, opined Fowler, has been a boon for opera.

"Rent does help," he said. "It's a very good piece of music, different from the usual Broadway stuff, though of course La Bohème is a much better piece of music. But Rent is a good thing for opera. We have to do that to get opera more popular with young people."

With this production, Arizona Opera tries still another strategy for attracting the young--in this case, the very young indeed. Members of the Tucson Boys Chorus have been enlisted to sing in Act II, portraying the denizens of a café in Montmartre, the 38-year-old Fowler said.

For all its Frenchiness--it's based on a French novel by Henry Murger--the opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles projected overhead. Fowler performs only in the Saturday night show in Tucson, ceding Rodolfo on Friday and Sunday to tenor David Hamilton, who also has sung at the Met and New York City Opera. Mimi's soprano is alternated by Kelley Nassief, who's performed with the New York Philharmonic and St. Louis Symphony, and in France and Israel; and Renee Sousa, who's fresh from an appearance at Carnegie Hall.

"This is my favorite opera," declared Fowler. "It's a complete masterpiece from start to finish. There are funny bits, sad bits. It's perfect for the audience."

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