Interview: Detroit Opera’s Yuval Sharon on his reimagined La bohème

The Detroit Opera’s artistic director takes Puccini’s classic and presents it in reverse.

Edward Parks, Marcello; George Shirley, The Wanderer; Matthew White, Rodolfo (Noah Elliott Morrison, Noah Elliott Morrison)

DETROIT – From performances in parking garages to an abandoned theater, Detroit Opera’s artistic director, Yuval Sharon, has taken opera to new heights. Now he’s taking one of Giacomo Puccini’s most renowned titles and reimagining it in a way that has never been done before.

La bohème, in its traditional telling, is a tragedy. Presented in reverse, this new version allows audiences to see the beauty in what makes life worth living. We talk with Sharon on his vision and what it takes to twist up a classic.

La bohème has played in Detroit several times over the last 25 years, why bring it back now?

This was a really important time to bring it back because we are reopening the theater for opera for the first time in two and a half years because of COVID. I thought it would be really meaningful to return to the Opera House both with something that was familiar that could create a circle with our past La bohème was the first opera that happened on that stage. But let’s not just repeat the past, let’s also evolve. Let’s show that we can find a connection between where we’ve been and where we’re going. To do La bohème but to do it in an original way, a creative way, was very much on my mind and felt like signaling a start of a new era for this company.

How did you come up with doing La bohème in reverse?

The idea came up in a conversation I had 20 years ago with the set designer, John Conklin. He brought up something that was very true to my heart which is about how do we experience operas in ways that can also feel in line with the way that we experience the rest of culture like shuffling music or telling stories in a different order so that they have a sense of mystery to them and a sense of trying to put the pieces together as to how things happen. We see this all the time in television shows and film but taking a classic and giving it a narrative disruption was something that suits La bohème very well.

We’re emerging from this period of COVID. It feels like the moment where we need to turn to art for its affirmation of life, not the continual emphasis on death, which La bohème, the normal order, ends with the death of the main character. So instead of that thinking we know she’s going to die, but how did she live? Putting the emphasis on that life felt like the right time for this to truly happen

Did you have to modernize anything in La bohème to be able to do the show in reverse?

I want the emphasis to be on the storytelling and what it means to experience the story in reverse order. I did not want to distract the audience with a modern telling of it. We did not set it in contemporary time. It is still set in Paris 1850. So the costumes are all very beautiful period costumes, the set and the rest of the design is very elemental, as if it’s a memory or evocation of a lost era. We get to really focus on the music, focus on the way that the characters unfold in this new telling of the story and not wonder what the shift is from any time period. I think that would have been pretty distracting. So I really wanted to focus to be on the characters, the performers and this very intimate story. It’s just in reverse order, that’s all.

Yuval Sharon. (MOT)

You introduce a new character to the show, what was that like?

To help with the reverse chronology, we have introduced a character that can lead the audience through this experience. We’ve called this character the Wanderer. He will literally wander in and out of the scenes and appear and disappear and guide us through this reverse chronology. In many ways, the idea for this role was inspired by thinking of an operatic legend who is reflecting back on their own experience of doing this opera. We are so honored to have Mr. George Shirley as part of the cast who is a real Detroit legend and a national treasure. He’s the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Obama and the first black tenor at the Metropolitan Opera and now an inspiration to many generations of singers as a teacher at the University of Michigan. Having him lead us through this production of La bohème is really moving.

How were you able to keep the runtime to only about 100 minutes?

No one believes that La bohème is that short. It truly is a swift piece. These are young, starving artists and their minds work like lightning. The music captures that, it’s why everyone loves this opera, because it captures what it means to be rambunctious, young and pretty wild: falling in love, being drunk and loving life, thinking they’ll never die. Working in reverse order allows us to have that be the last impression. I think Puccini captured that so ingeniously in the music and it’s why it just goes by in a flash. I really wanted that to be the overall character of this production. I’ve been saying to the singers and everyone involved that this production should feel like just one brushstroke. It’s like Japanese painting where as soon as you lift the paintbrush that piece of the painting is finished. That’s what I would love this production to feel like it’s that evocative and it’s that simple that we just do it in one gesture. I think that really brings the piece to life in an incredibly powerful way.

(L-R) Cory McGee, Colline; Benjamin Taylor, Schaunard; Edward Parks, Marcello; Matthew White, Rodolfo (2022)

What made you want to come to Detroit?

I was really excited to come to Detroit because of the artistic community that’s here. The artists, poets, writers, musicians. Detroit is such a musical town. One of my real ambitions for Detroit Opera is to bring opera, and not just opera like Puccini’s La bohème, but new opera and new music and bring it into our world. We’ve got different kinds of musical styles and then realizing that opera is in many ways an extension of a lot of music that we love, as well as recognizing some music that we love in opera. It’s exciting to think about intervening an opera and bringing new voices to the table. Detroit is such an open city for that kind of exploration. It’s a city that’s been incredibly resourceful, but also entrepreneurial with a real vibrant creative life. I’d love opera to be seen as part of that vibrancy.

What have you learned from doing these operas in these innovative and creative ways?

So far, the projects that we’ve done for Detroit Opera have not been in the Opera House because of COVID. They’ve been in parking garages, they’ve been in some unusual architectural gems. They’ve been in theaters that are not used to seeing opera happen, such as the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre where we did Blue in September. Each of those offered incredible lessons, but there’s one that I really take away the most from my projects in Detroit so far. There is a real appetite for things that are different and things that are new. Maybe most people don’t think of opera in that way. Maybe they think of opera as something that is closer to a museum. But I think there is a real openness and excitement for the opera that is as vibrant as the jazz concerts that play at the Aretha Franklin or the big installations that people are used to seeing at MOCAD. Opera is part of that trajectory. I feel like Detroit audiences are very, very curious and hungry for it so that’s been very encouraging so far in my two years here. It’s been very exciting.

What do you hope audiences get out of this version of La bohème?

I would like to think that what people get out of it is much more up to them than it is up to me. I would like to offer a lot of different impressions and possibilities and allow each audience member with their own histories, their own memories, their own experiences of opera, whether they’re new to opera or can sing La bohème from memory, they should just feel as invited as someone who has never seen La bohème before. I would love for them to feel inspired by what they see and hear, to find their own meanings. That’s what I think art is really for, not to indoctrinate any individual person into thinking or feeling a certain way. But the best art opens up for you up for your own emotional responses and helps you understand yourself better.

La bohème plays at the Detroit Opera House April 2, 6 and 10. Tickets start at $29. For schedule and tickets, visit

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