Act 1 of Puccini's opera is set in a garret amid the rooftops of Paris where four young bohemians live in poverty. When it's over, the curtain comes down and the audience stays in its seats. A mere 5 minutes or so later, thanks to the ingenious stagecraft of Franco Zeffirelli, the curtain rises again on a two-tiered street scene crowded with a cafe, vendor carts, stone staircase and house fronts, and teeming with 195 choristers, supers and children celebrating Christmas Eve.
"The audience always give the stage crew a hand," said Stephen A. Diaz, the Met's master carpenter. "It's one of the few shows where they do that."
There's a secret to the rapid scene change that the audience never guesses: The second-act set is put together onstage long before the opera even begins.
"We do it backwards - Act 2 first, then Act 1," said Diaz, who was overseeing backstage work before a performance last week as about 50 carpenters, electricians and painters buzzed about the set. ("Organized chaos," is how he described it with a laugh.)
The reverse order is necessary, Diaz explained, so that lighting cues for the street scene can be tested ahead of time. "They need 12 minutes of focus so it can just come out and be ready to go," he said.
About 15 minutes before show time, Act 2 disappears. The front of the cafe slides off to stage right on a rolling platform called a "wagon," the houses are pushed back, and a gray gauze scrim representing the sky comes down to hide the rear half of the set. Then the garret arrives on another wagon from stage left and the music begins.
The process is reversed between acts, but this time when the cafe set slides in from the side, it's crowded with people, and the "sky" is pulled up out of sight so the whole street scene is visible.
Without such a quick change the audience would have to wait through a half-hour intermission for a second act that lasts just 19 minutes.
Audiences worldwide will get to see the results for themselves on Feb. 24 when "La Boheme" is broadcast to movie theaters as part of the Met's Live in HD series.
BUILDING AND REBUILDING
Most Met productions are built to last 20-25 years, but this one is going strong 37 years after its premiere in 1981.
Diaz, now in his 46th season at the Met, worked with Zeffirelli when he designed the sets and still speaks with awe about the experience.
"It's magical. He took the building itself, and he took all its wagons and used everything to its fullest extent," he said. "The amazing thing is he has the biggest shows and they're the easiest to work. Because he did the figuring out for us."
And the production isn't going away anytime soon. Asked recently by The New York Times how he thought the public would react if he brought in a new version, Met general manager Peter Gelb replied: "I'm not going to find out."
But given its venerable age, many pieces of the set have needed refurbishing over time. "We have done a face-lift to basically every piece of scenery," Diaz said. "Starting in about 1991 we fixed the garret, then the cafe ... We do it a little at a time. Now it's completely done over and we're going around again."
BOHEME BY THE NUMBERS
"La Boheme" is the most-performed opera in Met history, and the HD broadcast will mark the 1,317th time it has been played.
It will also be the 475th outing for Zeffirelli's production - a record for a single production - and in that time 48 different sopranos have portrayed Mimi and 46 tenors the role of Rodolfo.
Along with seven principal singers, choristers, supers, and children, the onstage cast in Act 2 eventually includes seven stagehands in costume to move the carts out of the way for the cafe; 12 marching band members; one member of the music staff to conduct them; one horse, and one mule.
WHERE TO SEE IT
"La Boheme," starring Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo and conducted by Marco Armiliato, will be shown Feb. 24. A list of theaters can be found at the Met's website: http://www.metopera.org/hd . In the United States it will be repeated on Feb. 28.
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