My tiny heart is frozen – La Bohème Revisited in middle age


Vitalii Liskovetskyi and Alyona Kistenyova in Ellen Kent’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème

If it’s possible to be formed by the music you hear in your mother’s womb, I’ve been formed by Puccini’s La Bohème. Out of the blue, my father died at the age of 34 in my mother’s first weeks of pregnancy, and she got through it by wearing out her LPs of Puccini’s glorious opera. By the time I started school, I was already humming Che Gelida Manina. By the time I reached college, I knew whole arias word for word and I’m sure it was one of the reasons I taught myself Italian in later life.

So Bohème is probably the only opera I’d actually pay to see, and in fact I’ve seen two productions, spaced by 35 years or so. Last night I realised I’d changed more than the opera had.

I can still listen to Mimi’s farewell on Spotify while doing the ironing and find myself in tears. But seeing it staged seems to sharpen my critical faculties. No matter how glorious the singing (and last night’s Ellen Kent production was well sung, if a little scrappily staged), I can’t shake off the thought that this is basically the story of a dying woman and her abusive, controlling boyfriend trying, and failing, to break up. In fact, misogyny runs through the whole piece. Women are decorative, fickle, the source of moody male tantrums and broken hearts. They are also a tradeable and disposable commodity, guarded and policed by their possessive boyfriends who watch hawk-like for the revealing of a female ankle in public.

Oh, how can you, people will cry? The music’s gorgeous. Puccini was only reflecting the social mores of the period. Actually, Puccini’s philandering caused emotional carnage in his lifetime and led to at least one young woman’s suicide, but nobody said you had to be perfect to write wonderful music. Besides, the more well-informed will argue, in Muger’s original La Vie de Bohéme, Mimi’s a nasty little tart on the make, and Puccini remodelled her as an innocent victim. But I don’t think that feminist argument convinces. The view of women in La Bohéme swings between cynicism and sentimentality; both are the breeding ground of abuse.

I’m probably just getting on a bit. I’m old enough to be irritated by people who text in the stalls, who leave so rapidly after Act I that they forget to take their fags with them, who grumble that it’s not in English. I’m old enough to think that when Colline, looking every inch the hipster in this production, sings an ode to the greatcoat he’s about to pawn to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands, he might as well wrap her hands in the coat and hang on, she’s going to be dead and gone in five minutes. The Who hoped they’d die before they got old, and maybe they had a point.

Or it may just be that yesterday Downing Street played host to more operatic drama than even the stage of the Palace Theatre, Manchester could manage. I really wish I could stop deconstructing things, but that’s a baby boomer English graduate for you.

I think I’ll stick to Spotify in future. It’s cheaper, anyway.



Damon and his Doctor

Every year the city of Manchester hosts an international arts festival which is remarkable for consisting entirely of premieres, many of them quite high-profile and therefore high-risk. Last night I went with my son to Damon Albarn’s “English Opera” about Dr John Dee, the remarkable Elizabethan magician and mathematician who was, many believe, the prototype of Shakespeare’s Prospero and Marlowe’s Faustus.

Continue reading “Damon and his Doctor”


I’ve been reflecting on the way I acquire and experience music has changed over the years. My adolescence was back in the days of vinyl, when singles cost six bob and a highlight of Saturday morning was going into town and buying the latest one. Stereo was a novelty, as was recording your tinny voice on a primitive cassette recorder.

Now I can barely remember the last time I actually bought a CD. Probably to listen to in the car, and that too will change with our next vehicle, which will have an MP3 dock built in. If I buy new music at all I download (being quaint and old-fashioned, I tend to do these things legally). I recently acquired an iPhone and it’s changed my life. Shallow I my be, but I do love the feeling of hearing a song on the radio and having it there in my phone ten minutes later. Saves a fortune in bus fares.

Increasingly, I don’t even pay directly for the music I listen to – I just stream it in on Spotify and find that there aren’t all that many songs I listen to regularly months or years after their release. It makes you far more adventurous when you don’t have to pay for things you might not even like.

At the gym, I use a separate iPod – I don’t feel comfortable working out with a phone hanging around my neck and anyway I don’t have the required lanyard – I’m not even sure they exist for iPhones (correct me if I’m wrong). I have a selection of playlists put together by my teenage son, selected on the basis of BPM, and very motivational it is too.

My latest download is the new Muse album. I quite like it, though I think the meaning of the word "reference" varies between the music industry and academia. In the latter, referencing means very precise laws of attribution and quotation. Muse, however, seem to borrow liberally and shamefully from everybody from Chopin (they use an entire Prelude of his) to Freddy Mercury. I think some of the shifts work better than others – for example, United States of Eurasia starts off as Bohemian Rhapsody lite, throws in a bit of Middle Eastern stuff and ends up with said Prelude. It all sounds a bit like genre surfing on your iPod.

The opening track, Uprising, is probably the strongest but I defy anyone on my flist to listen to it without imagining a blue box shooting through the Vortex. It’s ironic that fanfiction writers slave over elaborate disclaimers, while Muse seem free to lift the Doctor Who theme wholesale, make money out of it and call it a tribute.

Finally, this made me laugh. An excellent contrast to the operatic pomp of Muse’s Exogenesis.