La bohème seems to be the perfect opera. The story is romantic, but full of high-spirited comedy; the libretto poetic, yet concise; the melodies memorable and ideally suited to each situation; the orchestration heartfelt and lush. Bohème caught the public’s interest at its premiere in 1896, and has been a part of the standard operatic repertoire ever since.

One wonders how such a “perfect” piece of musical storytelling was created, particularly since every note and word seem so “right” to those of us who know it well. Surely the composer, divinely inspired by the Muses, began with the first note, and wrote the score exactly as we all know it!

A quick look at one page of Puccini’s manuscript shows how inaccurate that idea is. Puccini wrote in black ink on pre-lined music paper; every crossed-out section shows his continual changes of mind. Vocal lines are rewritten, along with many alterations of orchestration. Some pages contain so many inky deletions and corrections that even an experienced musician can barely make out the familiar music.

a page from the score of La boheme

The orchestral score (above) tells us only the end of the story.

Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème had occurred to Puccini as a possible subject by 1891 at the latest. It had started life as a series of stories in a French journal and was then adapted as a stage play. Puccini may have read the Italian translation of the next adaptation—a novel. By early 1893, he had decided to set it to music. In a chance meeting with rival composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo that year, he happened to mention his idea, at which point Leoncavallo revealed that he was already well-advanced with his own adaptation of Murger’s vignettes. This only increased Puccini’s resolve, and the affair became a well-publicized scandal, with both composers racing to finish their compositions.

By the summer of 1894, Puccini was finally satisfied enough with his librettists’ efforts to start the composition. More changes in the text were made as he composed, and the score was finally completed on December 10, 1895. Even after the premiere in 1896, changes were made for future productions.

So this is how the beautifully-flowing, inevitable-seeming “perfect opera” came into being! It would seem that Edison’s adage holds true for music as well as science: “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Both operas were completed and premiered within nine months of each other. Today, Leoncavallo’s Bohème languishes in obscurity.

An abbreviated version of these notes also appears in the printed program book at Lyric Opera’s performances of La bohème, November 9, 13, 15 and 17 at the Kauffman Center. Tickets start at $29, available here.  

David Charles AbellDavid Charles Abell is a conductor of opera, classical and film music and musical theater. In the current season, he conducts Porgy and Bess with Atlanta Opera, Die Fledermaus at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and Sondheim’s 90th Birthday celebration with the Philly POPS (where he serves as Principal Guest Conductor).

Image credit: Giacomo Puccini, La Bohème, Act 2 (fragment). Made available online with permission of Simonetta Puccini, Associazione Amici delle Case di Giacomo Puccini, Piazza Puccini, 12, 55049 Viareggio, Italy.
From the Library of Congress, Music Division, Moldenhauer Archives.