Renowned Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème commences its debut season at the Arts Centre in Melbourne this week via Weimar-era Berlin under the direction of Gale Edwards.

Puccini set his opera amongst a group of young friends – a poet, a writer, a composer and an artist – living in poverty, a revolutionary idea at the time of its conception. It’s an age-old story of romance and suffering that Gale has updated for a contemporary audience. Taking inspiration from various sources, she has given the often lavish and expensive world of opera a touch of Depression-era grunge and contemporary sex appeal.

The program features a cast of young, international opera stars: American soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart – grand-niece of Tina Turner and Muddy Waters – plays Mimi the beautiful seamstress, while award winning South Korean tenor Ji-Min Park plays her lover, the poet Rodolfo. Antoinette Halloran will take the role of Mimi later in the season, while David Corcoran will make his role debut as Rodolfo at the same time.

For costume designer Julie Lynch, her role was “to support and contribute to Gale’s vision” with her 150 costumes for the entire cast. “The story goes that Mimi ends up lost and forgotten and dying and no one is there to help, and [Gale] wanted to find a place to put that where that scenario was believable.” The decaying glamour of 1920s Berlin and the Weimar Republic proved a perfect match.

Working alongside set designer Brian Thomson and lighting designer John Rayment in her ninth production with Gale, Julie has had the rare chance to work with little financial limitation. “There is a lot of money being spent to bring this new production into life. [Opera Australia] try to create something that justifies all that expenditure and effort to put a new production on,” she says. This included building a deconstructed spiegeltent for the set.

As for the costumes, they “end up being elements of many references,” Lynch says. “For instance, with Marcello [the painter] I looked at a lot of artists in the 1920s and actually wore a lot of artist’s smocks. Artist’s smocks aren’t particularly sexy, but that’s what a lot of painters wore, so in our case Marcello wears a big canvas coat. It’s got a bit of a smock quality, but it’s got a sexier look about it,” she explains.

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“And then there’s Mimi. We tried to show a really beautiful simplicity. She doesn’t have any money but what Rodolfo falls immediately in love with is her natural beauty. So while we might research the late 1920s period, we’ve actually stripped away her costume quite a bit.”

By appealing to both the traditional opera buff and a younger crowd, Gale’s production of La Bohème is giving Puccini’s breathtakingly beautiful score a refreshing, new appeal.

La Bohème will be performed at the State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne from April 12 to 30.