Theater Latté Da was still a young company in 2005 when its artistic director, Peter Rothstein, did something audacious. He took the hugely popular and revered grand opera “La Bohème” – music by Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa – and moved it forward 100 years to 1940s Paris, the start of the Nazi occupation. He cut the chorus, swapped out the orchestra for a handful of musicians and staged it at the Loring Playhouse, a small and suitably garret-like space at the top of a flight of stairs.
“We opened and we sold out the whole run within a couple of days,” Rothstein remembers. “We added shows, but we knew there were people who wouldn’t get to see it.” Writing for Lavender, John Townsend called the production “moving and exquisite.” Skyway News dubbed it “Puccini, on a diet.” It won an Ivey Award and returned in 2007 for a sold-out run at the Southern, but Latté Da hasn’t presented it since.
“Why now?” was one of the questions MinnPost asked Rothstein when we met last week in the lobby of the Ritz Theater, Latté Da’s home in northeast Minneapolis. This interview has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: What made you do “La Bohème” in the first place, back in 2005?
Peter Rothstein: I sang in a production in the chorus of Minnesota Opera shortly after I moved here, which is when I fell in love with the opera. I was wracking my brain as to how to do it. When you do a scaled-down version, you lose a lot. You lose the symphonic orchestra. And gigantic scene changes, like in the gorgeous Zeffirelli production still in rep at the Met.
In “La Bohéme,” the majority of the evening is two people onstage. There’s a big chorus in act 2, the chorus is onstage for less than two minutes in act 3, and they’re not onstage at all in acts 1 and 4. It wasn’t like I had to reimagine the whole evening. So much of the opera is intimate scenes between two characters in small rooms.
I often say, if characters were left to their own devices, what tools, what resources would they have to tell their own story? What would be the things that surround them? Knowing the characters in “La Bohème” are artists, where would they look for inspiration? In my opinion, gilded concert halls and a 60-piece symphonic orchestra would not accompany their lives. Their lives would be dive bars and artsy cafés and street musicians.
I was working with Joseph Schlefke a lot at Minnesota Opera at that time. We came up with this Paris café orchestra of just six pieces. You lose that big, lush symphony sound of Puccini, but you gain something more authentic to these characters. And also more vulnerable. One thing I’m always working towards is to find true vulnerability.
MP: Why bring it back now?
PR: We did “Ragtime”  during the last election season because at its heart is discourse about immigration, gender issues and race. We felt like those were going to be the hot topics of discussion, and they were.
There’s a sweetness about “Bohème.” The characters are starving artists, but over the course of the opera, they become adults. They’re great friends in moments of joy and celebration who have to learn how to care for each other in times of tragedy. It’s a coming of age and a loss of innocence. For me, it’s about watching characters learn how to practice empathy and lead compassionate lives. That feels very important right now.
MP: You’ve double-cast the four principal characters – Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta and Marcello – and all eight singers are making their Latté Da debuts.
PR: They’re incredibly talented – young and talented. They’re 18, 20, 25 years old. That’s another thing I think we gain in this distillation. We’re able to cast it much more age-appropriate.
All the cast is completely new except for Bradley Greenwald [Benoît, the landlord] and Rodolfo Nieto [Colline, a philosopher]. Those are the only two artists I’ve worked with before onstage.
MP: A lot has changed since 2005 in terms of awareness, sensitivity and language. There’s zero tolerance for the usual misogyny in opera. Was there anything about “La Bohème” that was problematic today compared to 15 years ago?
PR: Hopefully, I’m more attuned to gender roles and identity than I was then. “Bohème” is not problematic in the way of “Butterfly.” Mimi and Musetta are both strong women. Mimi is physically feeble, but we’re making choices at every turn to say, “How do we give them agency in this moment”?
We’re singing the opera in Italian, and I’m doing the surtitles. For example, at the end of act 1, Mimi and Rodolfo have just met for the first time, and he kisses her and she says, “No, please don’t.” He says, “You are mine” and still goes in for the kiss, but now Mimi stops him and takes control of the situation. She says, “What if I go out with you and your friends tonight?” And he says, “We could stay here. It’s cold outside.” And she says, “No, I want to go with your friends.” And he says, “How about on our return?” And she says “Curioso,” which means “I’ll let you know. I’ll decide.” Before they leave, I have Mimi instigating, and she kisses Rodolfo. Now it’s on her terms.
In act 2, Mimi calls out Rodolfo on his jealousy. And Musetta is incredibly powerful. I definitely made different choices to try to give these women agency and to call out men as much as possible, both in the physical choices as well as in the translations.
MP: What else is new since the 2005 production?
PR: We have more diversity onstage than we did before. Over the course of the first two productions, we had one, maybe two people of color. One of my Rodolfos is African-American. One of our Mimis is Asian-American. Our ensemble has more diversity.
Bradley Greenwald plays a waiter in act 2. I played the waiter in Minnesota Opera’s production, and it kind of bugged me that there was this group of artists living in Paris and there didn’t seem to be a gay person anywhere. Musetta is obnoxious at the restaurant. She comes in and smashes a plate. I said, “What if the waiter just loves her? Like, what gay man doesn’t love a good diva?” So that’s a new interpretation of that character.
MP: Are there things you’re not doing with Latté Da because they’re problematic?
PR: Yeah. An ongoing challenge is still less than 10 percent of musicals presented in this country have a woman or a writer of color on the team. Our New Works series leans heavily into writers of color. … I was having a conversation in the last couple of weeks about a title written by all women. It’s a musical I’ve been wanting to do, but a few lines of representation are problematic. And I can’t change them, so finally I just said that if I can’t change them, I’m not going to do this piece.
There’s a really important piece inside our canon, and I brought in actors and we read it and I said, “Is there a way to shift the lens on this? Is there a way to create a frame that makes it insightful and not just problematic? That points to its problems in a way that would be useful?” It was mainly African-American writers in the room, and some said “Absolutely!” and some said “No, write a new musical! Put your energy there.”
I live somewhere between that. I love history. I love acknowledging that the theater is part of a long lineage of minds and worldviews, that we stand on the shoulders of those people and we need to change the canon. I want both of those things, I guess.
But I’m thrilled that we’re here, that the voiceless are being given voice. I hope we don’t become paralyzed by trying to do it right. I’m a person who wants to do it right, and speaking just for myself, I have to work at not becoming paralyzed because I’m so concerned that I’m not going to do it right. Because there isn’t a right. Racism exists. Sexism exists. We still are not good with nonbinary gender identity. Society is messy. What was right 10 years ago isn’t right now, and what’s right today isn’t going to be right in 10 years. Hopefully, the conversation keeps moving forward.
MP: Is there anything else you would like people to know about your “La Bohème”?
PR: For purists, we are singing Puccini in its original keys in the verismo style. The orchestration is certainly different, but the singing is the same. Again, younger voices than you might hear in the big opera house, but absolutely stylistically the same.
And the action has been moved forward 100 years. When I looked at playing with the setting, I knew I could not have it leave Paris. For me, that would be sacrilege. You can’t take “La Bohème” out of Paris. But there’s nothing in the libretto that puts it in a timeframe. There’s no political figure, no cultural movement. It was kind of in a bubble timewise. So that’s when I thought, “What if we just move it forward 100 years? What does that look like?”
The Nazi occupation of Paris was so fascinating. Nothing was destroyed in that city. It’s so controversial and complicated. I’ve been careful not to write a story on top of “La Bohème,” but to raise the stakes, heighten the tensions and make the characters illuminate the themes that are already there.
Theater Latté Da’s “La Bohème” opens in previews tonight (Wednesday, March 11). Opening night is Saturday. FMI and tickets (start at $33). Closes April 26.