A Bohemian Occupation

By Steven Libowitz   |   July 18, 2023
Mo Zhou pulled from her own experiences from and proximity to Occupy Wall Street for this rendition of La bohème (courtesy photo)

Mo Zhou wasn’t sure what the Academy’s new vocal program directors Sasha Cooke and John Churchwell had in mind when they asked her to helm this summer’s production of La bohème. A traditional take with period costumes and mid-19th century mannerisms? Something more modern? 

Instead, they asked Zhou, who had assistant directed three previous productions of Puccini’s masterpiece across the country, whether she had an idea that she’d been dying to do. The director didn’t hesitate before saying she’d always wanted to set La bohème in New York City in 2011, the time of Occupy Wall Street. 

“I saw everyone’s eyes just light up,” Zhou said. 

The director had dual purposes for her proposal, first reclaiming the opera that has become “a chestnut love story, a romance where we get so carried away by the music that we forget to see the very disturbing issues hidden in the original stories of Henry Murger’s much darker novel,” the opera’s source material.

“Those issues of the struggling bohemians were sizzling in the society at the time and that’s why the piece really resonated with audiences,” she said. “That absolutely can translate to 2023.” 

But Zhou also had her own personal reasons for wanting to pursue a setting 12 years earlier in lower Manhattan. A reason close to her heart – having actually participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement and sitting in as part of the 59-day protest against economic inequality and wealth disparity that took place from September-November 15, 2011. 

“I spent 15 years living in New York City; I was part of that hipster movement during my bohemian years,” Zhou said. “Our New York City dream was similar to the Parisian dream of the 1930s. We were holding up an ideal and trying to feel like we could change the system. Now it seems like we are in a very eerily similar cycle.”

Zhou recalls her own struggles as a freelance international artist who, along with her other artistic friends, couldn’t afford health insurance and would self-medicate waiting for summer to fly to their home countries for a thorough physical exam, eerily paralleling La bohème’s tale of a poet, a painter, a musician, and a philosopher whose lives are interrupted on Christmas Eve.

“In America it is easy to have this nice façade about robust prosperity, but a lot of people are struggling like in the hidden corners of society,” she said. “I lived that.” 

Pursuing her vision for the opera provided the vocal fellows with a chance to bring their own ethos and personalities to the piece because they were mostly in high school in 2011, even if their own socio-economic status may have differed. 

“The singers have had so much liberty to be themselves on stage because they understand that era, and they don’t need to worry about how to walk, to carry your head, how you sit in 19th century Paris,” Zhou said. “They have brought so many exciting ideas, and a lot of authenticity into the performance, as well as a lot of humor.” 

The director said she’s been moved to tears in rehearsals because it’s been an opportunity to “stage the vignettes of my 20s into the show; my own story and my artistic friends are in all of the four characters. It’s my own personal tribute and homage to my bohemian days in New York City.”

Zhou said the process has uncovered lingering questions about whether she’d really achieved her purpose when she left China for New York. And having that catharsis happen on stage with the uber-talented vocal and instrumental fellows in massive production at the Granada this weekend will also be a truly unique experience for the audience, something that will never be duplicated again. 

“It’s been very special,” Zhou said. “It’s like I’m closing a chapter of my life.”

La bohème will be at the Granada Theatre on Friday, July 14, at 7:30 pm with a matinee performance on Sunday, July 16, at 2:30 p.m. For more information and tickets visit https://musicacademy.org/big-shows/la-boheme.

Upcoming @ MA

Faculty violist Richard O’Neill joins the X2 series concert this Thursday, July 13 (courtesy photo)

Thursday, July 13: With less than half of the 2023 summer music festival left, we’re deep in the thick of the season, with teaching artists coming and going and new guests arriving even as our relationships with the vastly talented 2023 fellows deepen. Also deepening: the musical explorations, as indicated by tonight’s X2 series concert blending faculty and fellows on repertoire far afield of the typical fare. Tonight’s attendees will hear California-born composer-conductor-trumpeter Anthony Plog’s “Music for Brass Octet,” with longtime Academy trumpeter Paul Merkelo mashing it up with seven brass fellows; August Klughardt’s “5 Schilflieder, Op. 28,” with oboe fellow Haley Hoffman joining faculty violist Richard O’Neill and pianist Margaret McDonald; and French Baroque composer François Couperin’s “Treizième Concert” from Les Goûts-réunis pairing double bassists Nico Abondolo and Tim Rinehart. Then it’s the evening’s anchor of Bach’s “Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068,” with three faculty members (Merkelo, oboist Eugene Izotov, and violinist David Chan) sharing the stage with 10 fellows. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $55) 

Saturday, July 15: You know what’s on the Academy calendar for tonight? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zippo. That’s right, it’s the only Saturday sans music all summer, due to the day being sandwiched by the pair of opera performances (La bohème, set in Occupy Wall Street-era NYC) on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon (see director Mo Zhou interview), plus a new desire to scale back and space out some of the summer events to give the fellows some more free time. Tennis – er, pickleball – anyone? 

Monday, July 17: I don’t want to work / I just want to bang on the drum all day. I don’t want to play / I just want to bang on the drum all day. Todd Rundgren was just expressing his human primal instinct in his hit song 40 years ago, but it’s also what probably originally motivated most percussionists to pursue that profession, probably including the five percussion fellows populating the Academy this summer. Full disclosure: I have no idea if that’s true, but whatever their background, Mary La Blanc, Austin Cernosek, Dana Dominguez, Paul Matthews, and Leigh Wilson have more or less perfected the art of percussion that has evolved mightily over the years since our tribal days. Tonight’s Showcase Series concert with the Percussion Studio, which also features both percussion teaching artists (Michael Werner and Joseph Pereira) employing all sorts of drums, cymbal, tambourine, triangle, marimbas, xylophones, and found objects to illustrate and entertain both the beat and the beauty of the field. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40)

Tuesday, July 18: Is it just me, or does Olivier Messiaen’s 72-year-old Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) continue to become more poignant with each passing year? Messiaen composed the quartet scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano as a prisoner of war in German captivity in 1941 and it was first performed by his fellow prisoners, but the work feels equally relevant and revelatory today. The chamber music masterpiece has frequently been a staple of the fellows’ repertoire but this year we get to hear it as part of the Teaching Artist Showcase with Richie Hawley, Martin Beaver, Seth Parker Woods, andConor Hanick, respectively, who will perform the 50-minute opus after violist O’Neill and pianist Natasha Kislenko play Schubert’s “Sonata in A Minor, D. 821, ‘Arpeggione.’” (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40)

Wednesday, July 19: Today offers the rare chance to matriculate in a master class led by a guest composer, in this case, the highly sought-after Samuel Carl Adams whose music weaves acoustic and digital sound into “mesmerizing” orchestrations. Faculty and fellows will play his 2021 piece Sundial at tomorrow’s X2 concert (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)… The fourth Chamber Nights Series concert featuring the fellows performing in a salon-style concert at the intimate Weinmann Hall delves deep into selections you’re not likely to hear very often, including Franz Schreker’s “Der Wind,” Gabriela Smith’s “Anthozoa,”and Eric Ewazen’s “To Cast a Shadow Again,” the latter two by living composers, before closing with Shostakovich’s “Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57.” The pre-concert wine reception should do nicely to loosen the ears for the evening. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $45)  


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