Who, after all, is not moved by the story of the doomed lovers Rodolfo, the would-be poet, and Mimi, the seamstress stricken with tuberculosis?
Credit John Kobal Foundation, via Getty Images
On Dec. 1, the Paris Opera will unveil a brand-new production of “La Bohème” whose details have been kept secret, except that it is set in the future and flashes back to a lost time. So this is a fitting moment to look back to the original story behind the opera.
“La Bohème” is based on the semi-autobiographical story of life in Paris’s Latin Quarter by the French novelist and poet Henry Murger. Murger, born a tailor’s son in 1822 in a Parisian concierge’s loge, lived in poverty in an attic in the Latin Quarter among a group of friends. They called themselves the Water Drinkers because they were too poor to afford wine. They met regularly at Café Momus, on the Right Bank near the church of St.-Germain l’Auxerrois. “Scènes de Bohème” were his romanticized stories about their lives, particularly that of Murger’s unhappy mistress, Lucile. The stories were published one by one in the magazine Le Corsaire-Satan.
Murger joined forces with the playwright Théodore Barrière to turn the articles into a stage play, “La Vie de Bohème.” It premiered at the popular Right Bank Théâtre des Variétés, which is still open. The first president of France, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, attended opening night. A runaway success, the play made Murger famous.
Credit Johan Elbers/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images
I learned about Murger when I was writing a book about the Rue des Martyrs in my neighborhood on the Right Bank in the Ninth Arrondissement. Murger embraced the bourgeois life and moved into a comfortable apartment in the neighborhood. Realizing that nothing succeeds like success, he revised the Bohème stories and turned them into a successful novel, “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème,” in 1851. Along the way, he grew wealthy.
He celebrated the Bohemian life. “The class of Bohemians … are not a race of today, they have existed in all climes and ages, and can claim an illustrious descent,” he wrote. “They are the race of obstinate dreamers for whom art has remained a faith and not a profession … their daily existence is a work of genius.”
Murger used the noisy, smoky Brasserie des Martyrs, one of the most famous Paris night spots, at 7, rue des Martyrs, as his base. Some of the best artists and writers of the era spent time here; the Bohemian tradition lived on. “Each great man had his table, which became the nucleus, the center of a whole clique of admirers,” wrote the novelist Alphonse Daudet, who frequented the brasserie. “They were called Bohemians, and the name did not displease them.”
Credit Universal History Archive/Getty Images; API/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images
With his newfound wealth, Murger became the writer du jour. Daudet called him “the Homer and Columbus of this little world.”
He reigned over the central table at the brasserie, which was frequented by painters like Monet and Courbet. Baudelaire, who lived nearby, sat at Murger’s table, where he argued about art and drank too much.
Not everyone appreciated the Brasserie des Martyrs. “A tavern and a cavern of all the great men without names, of all the Bohemians of petty journalism,” is how the brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, who lived nearby on the Rue St.-Georges, described it in their popular journal in 1857. Eventually, Murger was crippled by recurrent bad health and financial problems. He died penniless at the age of 38.
Credit Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images
His memory lives on in Paris. A bust of Murger can be found in the Luxembourg Garden. A statue of a woman in a flowing gown sprinkles flowers over his grave in the Montmartre cemetery. At 200, rue du Faubourg-St.-Denis, in the 10th Arrondissement, a plaque announces that Murger, a “man of letters,” died here in 1861.
More than 30 years after his death, Murger’s Bohème story was given new life, transformed into opera: two operas, one by Puccini, a second by Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of “Pagliacci.”
The two artistic rivals fell into an angry public battle over the rights to the story. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz tells the definitive story in her 2002 book, “Puccini: A Biography.” During a chance encounter in Milan in March 1893, Puccini and Leoncavallo went into a cafe to discuss their work, she wrote. Puccini said he was composing the music to “La Bohème”; a stunned Leoncavallo responded that he, too, was composing a Bohème opera with his own libretto. He claimed that earlier, he had offered Puccini his libretto, but that Puccini had replied that he was not interested.
Credit Robbie Jack/Corbis, via Getty Images
The two men took their battle to the Italian press. Both men claimed prior legal right to the story. “Let him compose, I will compose,” Puccini wrote in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. “The audience will decide.”
As it happened, Murger’s novel was in the public domain, which meant both men were free to use it.
Puccini’s “La Bohème,” with a libretto written for him by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, premiered in Turin in 1896. The audience included royalty, nobility and several rival composers. It received a tepid response, and bad reviews in the local newspapers. Then, a performance shortly afterward in Palermo was met with so much cheering and shouting from the audience that the singers repeated the final scene. From then on, Puccini’s “La Bohème” was judged a masterpiece.
Leoncavallo, meanwhile, set his libretto to his own music. His opera came a year later. It was more faithful to Murger’s plotline. (Mimi dies at the end, as she does in the Puccini, but is a party girl, for example.) But the story and the music are uneven and flawed. Today it is rarely performed and largely forgotten.
For guidance about the two operas, I turned to Pablo Veguilla, an American-born tenor who lives in Paris and is co-founder of Opera Musica, a Paris-based social network site for opera singers and classical music performers. Mr. Veguilla once sang both Bohèmes in successive New York Grand Opera performances in Central Park in 2003. He sang the role of Rodolfo in the Puccini version and Marcelo in Leoncavallo’s. (Marcelo the painter is a tenor here.)
“There are moments of raw energy in Leoncavallo that are sheer joy for a tenor,” Mr. Veguilla said. “He can be more dramatic, much more dramatic than Puccini. Puccini can be sung by light, lyrical tenors; Leoncavallo can’t.
“But Leoncavallo just doesn’t have the same flair. There are beautiful moments in his Bohème, but you have to wait for them. Puccini’s Bohème has everything to make it a masterpiece — beauty from beginning to end, a love story that moves the hardest heart. It’s poetry in song.”