Last night, I watched La Bohème (for the umpteenth time; as is the case for many operavores, it’s one of my favorites). This particular opera enjoys more widespread cultural resonance than arguably any other — nearly everyone knows the tragic story of young love and a life snatched away too soon, if not through the original collection of Henri Murger’s short stories and Puccini’s 1896 opera, then through La Boheme‘s Broadway incarnation, Rent.
One of the primary reasons for La Bohème‘s tenacious hold on generations of hearts and minds is its deep exploration of the relationship between desire and disease — or, more broadly, between Eros and Thanatos: love and death. La Bohème‘s heroine, Mimì, is slowly dying of pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that claimed a full 25% of Europe’s population over the course of the 19th century alone. Known throughout history as phthisis, the White Plague, consumption, and finally TB, mentions of the illness crop up everywhere, from Ancient Greek medical texts to Dickensian London. (It is still endemic to developing countries today.) Death came slowly; it often took several years for symptoms to manifest, and even after someone became visibly ill, it took many months — even years — for the victim to die. Despite TB’s agonizing symptoms, it was considered by many to provide a “good death,” since sufferers usually had plenty of time to put their affairs in order and say their goodbyes before they expired.
Unsurprisingly, a mystique developed around the disease, especially in 19th century Europe, where TB became known as the “Romantic illness.” Many artists, writers, and musicians died from it, including Frédéric Chopin and Anton Chekhov. Lord Byron once wrote, “I should like to die from consumption” (Yancey). Symptoms included pale skin, red cheeks (flushed cheeks and feverishness had sexual connotations), extreme thinness, and shining eyes — all of which became desirable traits, especially in women. In fact, “phthisic beauty” was such a craze that many young upper-class women who didn’t have TB deliberately paled their skin with makeup to give themselves the frail, wraithlike appearance the disease conferred. In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag explains the phenomenon of illness-as-attraction. According to her, “sickness has a way of making people ‘interesting’ — which is how ‘romantic’ was originally defined” (Sontag). In addition to being strangely magnetic, sickness also made people dependent, especially women. TB allowed uninfected men to reinforce existing gender roles and play the part of protector and patron to the ailing angels in their care. In the popular consciousness, this stereotypical femme fragile existed in opposition to the equally stereotypical femme fatale.
Opera deals almost exclusively in stereotypes, utilizing their familiarity while also subverting them. Operatic plotlines are necessarily short on exposition and the writing is sparse and “corny,” for the simple reason that it takes much longer to sing a sentence than it does to speak one. To grasp the full depth of opera, one must pay close attention not only to the words, but also to the music… and to the interaction between the two. In La Bohème, Puccini presents Mimì as a TB-ridden femme fragile, to whom the dashing poet Rodolfo is irresistibly drawn. But Mimì is not as fragile as she initially appears to be. Though she is gentle, kind, and soft-spoken (she doesn’t sing a word until the final scene of Act I, and even after that she has relatively few lines for a leading operatic lady), she is also independent; she lives in a garret room, alone at the age of 22, in the Bohemian Latin Quarter of 19th-century Paris.
Mimì, unlike Rodolfo and his friends (Marcello, a painter; Musetta, a singer; Colline, a philosopher; and Schaunard, a musician), is not a “Bohemian” in the true sense. Even though she lives among them, she is not a starving artist; she is an outsider, both in her trade and the disease she has. She is a seamstress who makes artificial flowers but craves real ones, a poignant metaphor for the false “life” TB gives to its sufferers. TB “was — still is — thought to produce spells of euphoria, increased appetite, exacerbated sexual desire… Having TB was imagined to be an aphrodisiac, and to confer extraordinary powers of seduction” (Sontag). The immediate and electric passion between Rodolfo and Mimì, if not depicted outright, is absolutely implied in their soaring unison lines and climactic arias (in general, operatic sex is heard, not seen). But there’s always something irreparably fractured and achingly desperate about their love; TB may tantalize its sufferers with the illusion of a more sensitive, intense life, but in the end that life is a sham, as pale as artificial flowers are in comparison to real ones.
The artistic community provides Mimì with a haven and welcomes her with open arms, but eventually not even art can revive her dying body. The best her newfound friends can do is restore her soul, which, she repeatedly asserts, was “dead” before she met Rodolfo. From the outset, their relationship is troubled; Rodolfo is a jealous lover, constantly asking Mimì where she has been and who she was with, and as Mimì’s condition worsens, he abandons her — Linda and Michael Hutcheon, authors of the book Opera: Desire, Disease, Death, suggest that since the TB bacteria was discovered in 1882 and La Bohème was composed in 1896, Rodolfo is aware that the disease is highly contagious and fears he will contract it if he continues living with her. He is guilt-ridden about this decision, and in the opening scene of Act III he confides his fears to his closest friend, Marcello. He confesses that his jealousy is a sham, that he is trying to get Mimì to leave him and find someone who can give her the help she needs:
In vain, in vain I try to hide my true torture.
Mimì means everything in the world to me.
I love her dearly, but I’m frightened,
I’m so very frightened!
Mimì is very sick!
Every day she wanes.
That poor unhappy girl is condemned!
A terrible cough shakes her chest, already her gaunt cheeks are blood red…
And my room’s a squalid hole, with no fire.
Remorse assaults me — I am the cause of her suffering!
Little does Rodolfo know that Mimì, standing outside in the snow, has overheard every word. In this crucial recognition scene, the audience watches helplessly as the reality of Mimì’s situation hits her. In barely a whisper, she sings, “Must I die?” before collapsing in a fit of violent coughing, which alerts Rodolfo to her presence. He hurries to her side.
Thus, tuberculosis — which is in the agonizing process of tearing the lovers apart forever — acts as the vehicle for their reunion in Act III. Mimì and Rodolfo agree to stay together until the spring, when, Mimì says, “nobody is lonely,” and, presumably, she can die more comfortably than she could in a freezing room with no fire. (I’ve seen some fantastic interpretations that take the contagious aspect of TB into account and have the lovers at arm’s length during this scene; they desire each other intensely, but Rodolfo is wary of contagion and Mimì cannot bear the thought of infecting the love of her life. When executed well, the tension between the two of them is enough to turn your stomach in knots.) The pair shares a rapturous aria before the curtain descends, ending the act on a relatively high note and giving listeners hope against all hope that their tortured love can still have a happy ending (spoiler alert: nope. Break out the tissues).
[Side note: Many people ask how Mimì manages to sing so beautifully if she is dying of a lung disease, and the answer is in the music. In Act III, which is where Mimì’s decline becomes evident, Puccini shortens her singing lines dramatically and quickens the pace of the music, so that the prima donna must take fast breaths between each line. This musical “panting” makes Mimì’s shortness of breath as realistic as it can be in an opera. Beyond that, a tad of suspended disbelief never hurts.]
Mimì leaves the opera — and this life — as quietly as she entered it: Puccini marked her final sung note and the muted violin chords underneath it ppppppp, and he even drew a skull and crossbones on the original score. Her death touched him deeply; after he finished writing the scene, Puccini said, “I had to get up and, standing in the middle of the study, alone in the silence of the night, I began to weep… It was as though I had seen my own child die” (English National Opera Guide).
Painfully, Rodolfo is the last person in the house to realize that Mimì is gone. He wails her name over a swelling string theme, and the responding silence is deafening — we are so accustomed to hearing them sing together and finish each other’s sentences that the lack of her voice strikes us in a deeper place than even the most luscious of their love duets did. Thus, the inevitable Thanatos, though it has been looming quite obviously for the last two-and-a-half hours, finally enters and ends the drama, and the shock of its arrival is all the greater precisely because everyone knew it was coming.
“La Bohème.” English National Opera Guide (1982).
Hutcheon, Linda, and Michael Hutcheon. Opera: Desire, Disease, Death. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
Yancey, Diane. Tuberculosis. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Press, 2007.