Opera Philadelphia

Inspired by the Impressionists

By Opera Philadelphia

As the orchestra plays the first notes of La bohème, the painting of a seascape on a wall of the set emerges into full blue-green color. Suddenly the wave crashes, tossing a spray of white brushstrokes to the swell of the music.   

When director and designer Davide Livermore conceived of this production in 2012, he chose to set the opera in the time it was written. The Impressionist art of the time became the inspiration for the sets and costumes of La bohème. Rather than a garret, the bohemians would inhabit an abandoned art salon. The paintings on the walls – masterworks by Van Gogh, Renoir, Pissarro – become the work of Marcello, a starving artist who happens to be creating some of the most popular paintings of all time in front of a live audience through the magic of video animation. 

Troy Cook as Marcell
Troy Cook as Marcello, the painter, in Opera Philadelphia's 2012 La boheme. Credit: Kelly & Massa

“In this world that Davide created, the paintings become a character unto themselves,” said David LevyVice President of Artistic Operations.  

Levy worked with Livermore and Director of Design and Technology Drew Billiau to select the paintings, including some from the Barnes and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then D-Wok, an entertainment design group out of Italy, transformed the paintings into compelling scenerycomplete with smoking chimneys and twinkling starts, by breaking down high-resolution photos and replicating the brushstrokes to create movement. 

“What I really liked about a lot of this imagery is all the animation is still the style of the art,” Billiau said. “In a sense, it’s as if the artist had that tool available to them, this is what it would have looked like.” 

The dedication to detail took time, and all of the pieces didn’t come together until opening night. “It took forever to download,” Levy said, as it took a dedicated computer to transmit all the files from across the Atlantic.  

“We’d be down to the last minute, waiting for a piece of artwork, and you wouldn’t see it at the final rehearsal,” Billiau said.   

But “it all came together,” Billiau said. “It’s just amazing to watch these pieces that you see in static imagery blown up this big and moving and interacting with the singers. There’s just this magic about it that really amazing.”  

One standout moment is when Van Gogh’s Sunflowers appear on the wall, painted in black and white. “The moment Mimì and Rodolfo kiss, all the sudden it blossoms into color,” Levy said.  “It’s simple, but incredibly effective.”   

Program note from Opera Philadelphia's 2019 production of La bohème, April 26–May 5, 2019.

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