Periodically in history, the unique social climate of the times creates a new type of person; some character that had never existed before but instantly becomes so important that a new word must be coined. The 1960’s gave us the “hippie” and the 1920’s gave us the “flapper.” In the 1830’s, Parisians started referring to the strange assortment of people living on the margins of bourgeois society as “bohemian, “ which, at the time, was the French word for gypsy. It was mistakenly believed that the Roma people came from Bohemia, the modern day Czech Republic. And so “bohemian” became the name for that portion of modern society that has no visible means of supporting itself – the artists, musicians, intellectuals, radicals, men and women of ill repute, and the dropouts that populate the cultural capitals of the west. Every bourgeois city has them – London, New York, Chicago, San Francisco; but no city, now or ever, has had a greater claim on the title “capital of the Bohemian nation” than Paris.
It was Henry Murger who brought the bohemian nation into focus and began to define it. In 1845, Murger’s stories of bohemian life began to appear in a Paris newspaper. They did not receive much attention at first. Murger was a writer of modest talents whose stories were populated with characters that were thinly disguised versions of himself and his circle of friends. Then in 1849, Murger teamed up with playwright Théodore Barrière and put his bohemians in a vaudeville. It was such a huge success that the characters Marcel, Rodolphe, Mimi and Musette became household names. When Puccini adapted the play for his opera in the 1890’s, it had already enjoyed numerous revivals and was a well-known commodity.
Puccini’s La bohème has since become one of the most popular operas in the world. What has made it such and enduring work is that the characters seem so modern, so much like us. The people who populate the bohemian nation, then and now, come from the ranks of the bourgeoisie; they are the children of doctors, bankers, teachers, lawyers and small business owners. They are the black sheep of their families. Perhaps some of them are only putting on the bohemian lifestyle for a time, sowing their wild oats, all the time knowing that they will eventually return to the fold. Others will never be able to fit in and will live out their lives on the margins of society. Still others will become rich and famous, recounting humorous anecdotes about the poverty of their youth on the late night talk show circuit.
For, make no mistake; the bohemian nation is a youth nation. When bohemians grow old, they pass into another plane of existence. We, their audience, want them to stay young forever, like Peter Pan, and live to fight another day. The strange and remarkable beauty of La bohème is that it captures the bohemian spirit in the full flower of its youth, just as it’s beginning to fade away. What happens the day after the opera ends? Don’t turn the page—let’s keep our friends young forever.