NEW YORK — The idea behind doing ‘La Boheme’ on Broadway,” says Baz Luhrmann, the Australian master of many media, “was to bring the opera back to the audiences it was written for — mass audiences, the popular audience.”
Luhrmann, who has become something of a specialist in reimagining old texts and mothballed genres for the short-attention-span generation, first staged Puccini’s opera in 1990 in Sydney, Australia, where he and company Bazmark were based. The idea to return to the opera more than a decade later coincided with Luhrmann’s desire to open an office — and establish a home — in New York.
As his movie career took off in the ’90s, and Luhrmann and his creative team found themselves globe-trotting more often than not, he felt the need to establish a base in closer proximity to the world’s other entertainment capitals. Where else but Gotham?
“New York is the center of our physical world,” he says. “As I say, you go right you’re in Europe, you go left you’re in L.A. We lived in the Mercer Hotel practically since it opened, on and off, and I wanted to establish a permanent home.”
Luhrmann’s “La Boheme” for Broadway can be seen as a valentine to the city, and a calling card, too. Although the exhausting production and promotion schedule for film “Moulin Rouge” left him ambivalent, at least at one point, about the daunting prospect of bringing opera to Broadway, where more lightweight fare is the norm, Sept. 11 served as a wakeup call of sorts.
“There are certainly easier ways to have a hit on Broadway than bringing in an Italian opera in Italian,” he says with a laugh. “But Sept. 11 made me assess what I really wanted to do, and the idea of taking this beautiful music and this powerful story to a wide audience just seemed right. These kinds of deeply human stories give us something to hang on to in a moment when everything is called into question.”
Certainly Broadway itself could use a shot of the fresh aesthetic that Luhrmann brings to his filmmaking. As he admits, the kinds of hip young audiences that flock to his movies aren’t necessarily the same ones tramping down 45th Street on matinee days.
“Broadway doesn’t pervade the culture the way it used to,” he says. “I acknowledge that there are a lot of my friends and associates who don’t go to Broadway in search of a complex meal, shall we say.”
Luhrmann invokes another example of popular, cutting-edge entertainment in describing his approach to bringing a century-old opera to an environment where adventurous aesthetics are far from the norm.
“I think it’s true that the characters in ‘Sex and the City’ don’t go to Broadway as much as you might like,” he explains. “I kind of hope in my heart that the characters in that show would go see our production of ‘La Boheme.’ I think it can speak to those kinds of people, even if it demands more than your average piece of Broadway entertainment.
“Actually I think the opera is a bit like ‘Sex and the City’ with a lot of hit tunes. It was that big at the time, adapted from a massively popular play. Saucy but popular.”