Columbus Symphony and Chorus to offer 'break from reality' with staging of 'La Boheme'

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Columbus Symphony Music Director Rossen Milanov will conduct "La Boheme," Feb. 4-5 in the Ohio Theatre.
Columbus Symphony Music Director Rossen Milanov will conduct "La Boheme," Feb. 4-5 in the Ohio Theatre.

Just before the pandemic hit, the Columbus Symphony had fallen in love with performing opera.

The symphony had long partnered with Opera Columbus on its shows, but more recently had started presenting its own productions of classic operas with guest vocalists. First up was Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” which the symphony and singers performed in late February 2020.

“We kind of got addicted to doing opera then,” said Daniel Walshaw, the symphony’s vice president of operations and artistic planning.

At the time, the plan was to make opera productions a regular part of the symphony’s annual offerings, said Music Director Rossen Milanov.

“We just conceived that idea of having one big opera a year, always produced at the Ohio Theatre,” Milanov said.

Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, those plans are finally coming into focus.

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Guest vocalists to also be featured

On Feb. 4-5, the Columbus Symphony and Chorus will perform Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 masterpiece “La Boheme” in the Ohio Theatre. The opera — focusing on the passions and tragedies experienced by 19th-century bohemians in Paris — will feature about 25 members from the 120-member Columbus Symphony Chorus as well as numerous guest vocalists. The plot of the opera was later used in the Broadway musical "Rent."

Soprano Michelle Johnson will sing the central role of the seamstress Mimi. Also in the cast are tenor Joshua Stewart as Rodolfo, soprano Abigail Rethwisch as Musetta and baritone Brian Major as Schaunard.

The symphony promises a fully staged version of the opera. Although pandemic concerns moved the symphony from the cramped environs of the orchestra pit to the more generous space of the Ohio Theatre stage, the production will still feature scenic elements as well as video projections designed by S Katy Tucker to kindle an appropriately Parisian atmosphere. The singers will also wear costumes.

The idea is to give the audience a sense of operatic opulence.

“It just serves as a perfect introduction for a lot of people who probably are not quite familiar with opera productions in general,” Milanov said.

Soprano Michelle Johnson will appear as Mimi in the Columbus Symphony's "La Boheme," Feb. 4-5 in the Ohio Theatre.
Soprano Michelle Johnson will appear as Mimi in the Columbus Symphony's "La Boheme," Feb. 4-5 in the Ohio Theatre.

Symphony leaders see room for the coexistence of Opera Columbus, which typically performs in the Southern Theatre or nontraditional venues, and the symphony’s own occasional opera productions. (Opera Columbus most recently performed “La Boheme” last May at 400 West Rich.)

“We absolutely adore Opera Columbus and we love working with them and we love what they do for our community,” Walshaw said. “But our home is at the Ohio Theatre, and we feel that the Ohio Theatre needs opera.”

He added: “It’s a space that lends itself to grandeur and to grand opera.”

“La Boheme” represents a return appearance for soprano Johnson, who had the starring role in Opera Columbus’ production of “Tosca” in December. Although Johnson had never before sung “Tosca,” the part of Mimi in “La Boheme” is an old favorite.

“It works for my voice, and I love it,” said Johnson, of Philadelphia. “It’s sort of like balm to the vocal chords.”

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The opera itself, she said, will transport concert-goers.

“It’s almost as if it’s a little break from our reality,” Johnson said. “I always feel that ‘Boheme’ should be in a snow globe: You can go back and revisit it, shake it up a little bit and it’s such a beautiful, perfect scene.”

Columbus Symphony Chorus returns

“La Boheme” also marks the return of the Columbus Symphony Chorus, which has not performed in the Ohio Theatre since before the pandemic.

In addition to the reduced ensemble that will accompany “La Boheme,” another small group of singers will participate in a performance of J.S. Bach’s “St. John Passion” at the end of April. Then, the full chorus plans to reconvene for the season finale of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” on May 13-14.

For now, though, symphony leaders are simply glad to have some of their favorite voices again filling the Ohio Theatre.

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Our chorus is all volunteer, and they’re some of our most dedicated and loyal people in the organization,” Walshaw said. “We’re so excited to work with them, little by little, and do it as safely as we can as we ramp back up.”

For Milanov, the return of so much singing in the halls of the theater is a bit of a dream.

“My biggest childhood passion was actually singing,” he said. “I love working with singers in general, and I have a big passion for opera singers in particular.”

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At a glance

The Columbus Symphony and Chorus will perform “La Boheme” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4-5 in the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required. Patrons are encouraged to use the Bindle check-in app. Tickets start at $10.33. For more information, visit www.columbussymphony.com.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Symphony and Chorus to perform 'La Boheme' in Ohio Theatre

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