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Maine's PORTopera Mounts Production of Puccini's La Boheme

When the curtain goes up tonight on a production of Puccini's La Boheme at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Michelle Johnson will try to restrain herself. Johnson, who is singing the lead role of Mimi in PORTopera's new take on the classic, says by holding back, she'll capture the essence of a character that Puccini meant to be soft and vulnerable, and consumed by love. Lynnsay Maynard stopped by a recent rehearsal, and has a preview.

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The backstage of Merrill Auditorium is bustling with activity. A stage manager patrols the halls, pulling performers out of rehearsal rooms. In one crowded room, more than 50 members of PORTopera's orchestra take direction from visiting conductor Israel Gursky.

"A special quality, we haven't found it yet - maybe a little more pianissimo," Gursky says. "We need to find something that is full of life and very soft."

The voice belongs to soprano Michelle Johnson (left), and Gursky (below right) seems pleased with her approach. Hailing from Pearland, Texas, Johnson was one of five winners of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a competiton whose previous winners include the likes of Renee Fleming and Deborah Voigt.

LaBohemeBrochure.inddJohnson says she was introduced to opera as a child through a PBS broadcast of another Puccini classic, Madama Butterfly.

"The glamour of the entire stage, the costumes, just the embodiment of the singers themselves - what their bodies were able to do, like, just as a human beings," Johnson says. "I was mesmerized. I couldn't believe that, number one, they weren't mic'd, number two, they not only sang beautifully but they acted so well. I wish, I wish I knew who was in that cast - I can't remember, I don't know. But they really sold me on the art form of opera, because you have acting and you have the singing and you have the beautiful, glamorous costumes. I was very young, but I definitely still understood what was going on, and I felt every emotion that was happening at the time. So, I was, like, eight, and I was boo-hooing at the end as Madama Butterfly took her own life because of love."

LaBohemeBrochure.inddLove is also a destructive force in the story of La Boheme, which follows a group of Bohemians in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1830. PORTopera Artistic Director Dona Vaughn (right) has set the production in the Paris of 1909, to reflect a brighter, more vibrant Paris. Puccini takes the audience through the fleeting, and ultimately tragic, love story of the struggling poet Rudolfo and his beautiful neighbor, Mimi.

"Mimi, is so - she is very complicated," Johnson says. "She starts off very, very simple, she probably has an agenda at hand, but it all fails once her health fails in the first act when you first see her. And then all of a sudden, she's swept up by love. Their love is a very chaotic love, it's in and out and he's very jealous, and her health is failing her, and I'm sure the stress of her relationship isn't helping her health. So you see the decline of Mimi throughout the show. It's a fast decline, but at the same time it's almost like a slow burning flame inside of her."

"I continually tell myself: 'Do nothing,'" Johnson says. "She's so simple - 'Just, just stand still, Michelle. Don't, like, throw yourself on the ground and roll - it's not necessary, if I am being true to Mimi, and honest, as I want to be believable.' And so Mimi is just simple. So I feel that I'm not giving enough, but when I feel I'm not giving enough, that is exactly the right amount that I should be giving to Mimi."

"Mimi, was very challenging for me because in my personal life, I'm probably more opinonated than I need to be. And I do love the strength and the heroines I've been able to perform in my careeer, but Mimi is just so gentle and she's so vulnerable and it was a challenge for me to show that side of myself that I do have, inside of myself, but to lay it out on stage. It's a little scary but I'm loving learning a softness to my acting abilities."

LaBohemeBrochure.inddBack in rehearsal, conductor Israel Gursky gives tips to Rodolfo, played by baritone Jeff Gwaltney (right).

(Audio of Gwaltney singing.)

"Right now my career is starting to blossom and I am not one to shy away from new roles," Johnson says. "So I am very excited that I had this opportunity to come to PORTopera and make my role debut as Mimi, and I hope to continue to have her grow, as the years go along."

PORTopera's production of Puccini's La Boheme opens tonight at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, and there are two performances this weekend.

Learn more about the PORTopera's production of La Boheme.

Photos: Courtesy PORTopera


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