OREM — Utah Valley University is mounting an ambitious production of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, La Bohème. Under the tutelage of Broadway director Matt August, the opera will have an initial run of three performances with world-class opera singer Marina Costa-Jackson as Mimi and Isaac Hurtado as Rodolfo. Immediately after, there will be another four performances with UVU students Cristina Villalobos and Hannah Jenson as Mimi and Daniel Perez and Josh Hooker as Rodolfo.
To learn more about this exciting production, I sat down with two of the production’s Mimis to ask them about their careers, the show, and their love of opera. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
UTBA: Ms. Costa-Jackson, you have played the role of Mimi before in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. How will you draw on that earlier experience while making this production different from those earlier ones?
Costa-Jackson: In general, the more you do a role, the more you can dive deep into it and learn the different layers. Plus, with opera, the music is so expressive and beautiful; it really informs the role in a certain way when you’re learning it. As you do it, you realize that the composer is even greater than you first knew and can inform you at a much deeper level. It actually can change and warp over time. I sang this role after I was divorced, and the part had a whole different meaning to me during the big breakup scene in Act III. And that made it a little more emotionally poignant for me at the moment in time and informs the character for me today, as well. So, you just add little facets in your diamond that you’re creating, which is the role of Mimi. I think I’ll bring all those little facets with me.
We’ve worked on it with Matt August, who is a wonderful director, and he comes from a theatre background. Sometimes in opera, we’re stuck in tradition and the traditional way of doing things. He’s kind of tweaked it, and we have found some new aspects of Mimi with him, and I’m really excited.
UTBA: Cristina, in a way, you’re an apprentice to a master in your field right now. How does that differ from earlier experiences you’ve had in music or in opera?
Villalobos: Marina is amazing and unbelievably sweet. I’m so lucky that I get to watch her, ask her questions and get to know her. I have only ever had one major role before. You watch performances and do research on your character, learn the role, and do translations and do all the work . . . But to actually get to be with someone who has done this role multiple times and spent years on this character and this music really does change me as a performer. And I’ve seen her do specific things in rehearsals that make me think, “Wow, I would have never thought to do that.” Or being able to tell her, “I saw you do this,” and having her explain why she did that has been really cool. She has been able to talk about the field of opera in general. Just getting to hear somebody who is in this profession and has been really successful is rewarding, and I’m glad I can be close to her.
Costa-Jackson: I want to add to that: Thank you! I actually haven’t had a chance to hear Cristina yet. Everybody says, including faculty, that she’s the star of the program. I’ve also enjoyed working with someone who is willing to hear and listen. Sometimes you worry that two divas are coming in and both trying to sing the same role. That’s not a problem here. In my profession, I’ve learned that you can’t compare apples and oranges. Everyone has a different voice, and everyone is going to portray a character a different way. So, to covet someone else is silly. It’s been so nice to work with Cristina, and I cannot wait to hear her beautiful voice and to work with her some more.
UTBA: There goes my question about the challenge of sharing a role! Apparently, it’s not a challenge at all for the two of you.
Costa-Jackson: No. Honestly, when I think of when I closer to her age and taking on this role for the first time—or any role for the first time—and wish I would have had somebody who had told me some of the secrets of the role. I haven’t had the chance to share everything yet. I know I will, coming up, get a chance to work with her a little more. And I just want to share some of the secrets to her to look a little more frail or to look more realistic. Or maybe she has it all down pat, so maybe I’ll learn from her. But I would love to pass on some of the trademark tricks of sopranos.
Villalobos: I would love that.
UTBA: I wish I could watch you two in rehearsals. It sounds fun. Cristina, what was your first taste of opera? I want to hear about your background with that.
Villalobos: It’s kind of funny. My current teacher is Dr. Isaac Hurtado, and I had always loved singing. I wanted to take voice lessons, and I was more into musical theatre. I was supposed to have a consultation with someone who was an expert in pop or musical theatre. And somehow I got a consultation with him in his music studio. I don’t even know how it happened. He asked me how long I had been singing opera, and I was surprised. I sang something random for him, and he said, “You know, I think you could be really good in opera. I think you should give it a try.” And I said, OK. He ended up inviting me to his summer opera festival, and one of the activities was an aria competition. I heard this women sing a song called in English “To the Moon.” It’s from the opera Rusalka. And I was so blown away. I had never been so impacted by music in my life. I felt like she was talking to the moon, even though it was not in English. I felt like I knew what she was saying. I want someone to have the same experience that I had.
UTBA: Ms. Costa-Jackson, your mother is Italian, and she exposed you to opera at a much younger age than Cristina was exposed to it. Do you feel that your heritage has influenced your work and your performance?
Costa-Jackson: Yes, I do. I feel that having that Italian background enriches what I have to offer. Culturally, because of the loudness of the culture, but also language-wise and drama-wise. I loved Cristina’s story because the song is so well depicted by Dvorak that you can feel that it is talking about the moon. You have the instruments speaking, but you also have the human voice speaking. We call that, “being bit by the opera bug.” Honestly, I wasn’t bit until very much later. My mother started the journey with all the Italian songs and opera in the background. And I have two singing sisters who are opera singers. One is a coloratura soprano, and the other is a mezzosoprano, and our running joke is that God took care of jealousy because we’re all different types of sopranos.
So, I feel that my heritage helps. Thank goodness my parents taught me Italian—that was actually our first language growing up—because I feel that it is so much easier to not have to translate what I’m saying. I know what I’m saying because I speak the language.
UTBA: Cristina, tell me about playing a major role and also being in the chorus in a major production.
Villalobos: When I was learning Mimi, I listened to La Bohème a thousand times, so when they told me I had to sing chorus, I already knew it. It’s great. I like singing both, and it’s fun.
UTBA: Basically, you have two opening nights, but it sounds like you have been able to hit the chorus role running.
Villalobos: Everyone is great in the chorus. So, it’s fun.
UTBA: Ms. Costa-Jackson, you have ties to Utah, but you have also sung in opera houses all over the world. Does singing for a hometown crowd differ from singing in L.A., or Paris, or other cities?
Costa-Jackson: Yes. In a way, there’s more pressure because all the people who couldn’t come to my show in Paris or other places actually can come now. My family is into opera, but my extended family and my in-laws don’t really know opera at all and what I do. It will be interesting to see what they think, and I hope that they’ll like it and catch that opera bug, too. So, in a way there is more pressure because you’re a prophet in your own country.
But also there are people who come to opera and think they’re going to be bored to tears or who just want to enjoy some music. So, I think it will be a mixed bag of feelings of more pressure and less pressure because they’re people you love, but they also want to be entertained.
UTBA: How do you keep a performance fresh when a piece has been a central part of the opera repertoire for over a hundred years?
Villalobos: Something I love about singing, in general, is that everyone is different, and your voice is so unique to you. I think that some parts of Bohème are so moving and touching for me, and there can be totally different parts of the score that are moving and touching for Marina. Mimi is a complex character, but also simple at the same time. I feel that for me, at age 21, there’s so much room for me to grow and become a person. So, I think keeping it fresh is to say, “This is the age I’m at and the experience I have,” and I’m just going to have a totally different interpretation than Marina. I think that both versions and each night are going to be totally different.
Costa-Jackson: That is absolutely true and correct. I’ve noticed that the character is something different to me from the first time I was doing it to now. Cristina’s version is probably more fresh. This character does have an arc, even though she’s always sick, and you suspect she won’t end up so well. You can see from beginning to end, you can see how her character starts to fade and how she deepens and has that decline. Whereas I might have to work harder to be fresh and bright-eyed at the beginning, we both will hit those marks from who we are as people and what we have to offer. Because we are the instrument, and so Cristina will offer her beautiful instrument she has, and I’m going to offer what I have. Really, everyone should come see both of us. See the show twice!
UTBA: The site is going to review both, so it will be interesting to see how our reviewers respond to both performances.
What can you tell me about this production that would make this production excited to see it? Most of our readers are theatre people who tend to see musical theatre, or Shakespeare, or a modern American play.
Costa-Jackson: Our director is fresh off of Broadway, and he’s give it a theatrical twist to this. There’s a a theatrical, modernized element to this production. So, you’ll still get the beautiful period drama that a lot of people are attracted to. You’ll get Bridgerton, but it will be mixed with Moulin Rouge!
Villalobos: Matt is a theatre director, so the way he has thought about the characters is different from how they are portrayed in opera.
Costa-Jackson: It’s not completely traditional. He has definitely added some things.
UTBA: How can someone attending an opera for the first time prepare to have the best experience possible?
Costa-Jackson: I was just typing up a whole synopsis, including Matt’s twist on it, for all the family members who have never attended an opera. I think that the best way to prepare is to know what the story is about from the very beginning. Do a little bit of homework. A little bit of homework in opera goes a very long way. Because instead of spending the whole time glued to the supertitles, trying to figure out what the drama is going on, you know what is going on. You can just sit back and enjoy. Just do a little bit of homework, and it will be an A+ experience.
Villalobos: I agree. I can be annoying to my parents and make them listen to every aria or duet I’m singing. I will go through the score and explain every part so that they know exactly what’s happening because if you don’t do any of that beforehand, you can get lost and miss stuff. It is in another language and you want to be watching the singers. I agree with Marina. Doing a little bit of homework will make a really big difference.
UTBA: A lot of our readers are willing to do that homework. Not everyone can see a Shakespeare play cold, for example. So, I think that when we tell people about this show, they’re not going to be afraid to look at a synopsis or read about the composer.
Costa-Jackson: Cristina hit on an important part of the homework: listen to the music from the opera. And then when that familiar tune starts, it keeps people involved and actively watching when the story ties into something familiar. Go listen to “O Soave Fanciulla,” the big duet at the end of Act I. It’s one of opera’s most famous duets of all time. Go listen to Musetta’s aria from Act II, as well. That’s one the most famous opera arias. You’ll recognize it and know it and be excited when it comes up.
UTBA: One final question to wrap up with: What is your favorite moment of this opera that you wish you could relive again and again and again and that you’re excited to perform?
Villalobos: My favorite part is in Act IV. I call it the “sono andante” section, and Marina has explained it as Mimi’s swan song. It is the hardest thing in the opera for me to sing because it is the most emotional part. Mimi is telling Rodolfo that he is her world, and she says that she loves him and that their love is deep. The way that it is written, the orchestra part is pretty bare, but the emotion is so high that I cry every time I listen to it, which is why I have a hard time singing it. That’s my favorite part. I love it, and I think it’s amazing.
Costa-Jackson: Cristina, I should have answered before you because you stole my thunder. The whole scene she’s talking about is when Mimi comes in during Act IV and collapses. Her eyes flutter open, and she says to Rodolfo, “I came all the way here, and I dragged myself through the streets just to tell you this final thing: You’re my love and my entire world. You’re my everything. And that’s all I needed to tell you before I left this world.” I get goosebumps just saying it because Puccini wrote it so incredibly well. And just before there’s a musical interlude that throws us back to Act I that includes some of the music that was the foundation of them falling in love. It, literally, is breathtaking. It is such a precious, beautifully encapsulated moment of love. We really wanted to be careful about how we did it and how we portrayed it. It’s actually very different from the other six productions that I’ve done. Watch our for that part of Act IV. You’ll know what it is when you see it and hear it.
UTBA: Thank you for your time. I wish both of you the best of luck. I’m looking forward to opening night. Good luck rehearsing!