BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
La Boheme is many people's first opera, and Frank van Laecke remembers the experience well. Growing up in Ghent, Belgium, he saw the Puccini classic as a 4-year-old.
"My parents saved money so we could go to the opera house," van Laecke said. "Every Friday night I was at the opera with them, in the highest balcony. One of the first operas I will never forget was La Boheme. Even being 4 years old, the music touched me immediately. Afterward, I remember playing all the parts from the opera in our living room."
Van Laecke, now 55, is the director of La Boheme for Opera Tampa, the final production in the company's monthlong Florida Opera Festival. With its tale of young artists in 19th century Paris, and the tragic romance of poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi, the opera is totally accessible.
"It's not complicated, the story line is easy, and the emotions are clear," van Laecke said last week. "Puccini wrote music that is able to touch our hearts and souls immediately. Yesterday at rehearsal, we had two people watching who had never been to an opera, and they stayed for an hour and a half. Afterward, they came to me with tears in their eyes and said they were so moved."
Van Laecke, who still lives in Ghent, has directed a wide range of theater, from opera to dance to circus acts. Gardenia, a dance-theater piece about a drag cabaret that he and choreographer Alain Platel staged for the Belgian avant-garde dance company Les Ballets C de la B, has been performed widely in recent years. He wrote the libretto for a musical on the Italian-American radicals Sacco & Vanzetti, though he is not familiar with the opera of that same title and story written and composed by Anton Coppola, former artistic director of Opera Tampa, which premiered the work.
Van Laecke's engagement with Opera Tampa came out of the blue.
"My agenda was quite full," he said. "I only had four weeks when I was not directing or writing a play or an opera, then a phone call came with the offer. It was for exactly the four weeks I had free. It must have been a signal. Since it was La Boheme, I said okay."
He has not worked before with Opera Tampa artistic director and conductor Daniel Lipton, and the singers in the cast are also new to him. Among them are Richard Troxell, who plays Rodolfo, and Marianne Fiset as Mimi.
"It's a dream to work with maestro Lipton," van Laecke said. "We did not talk one word before I came here. But we are perfectly in line. I enjoy every second of the rehearsal period and being here. Everyone works very hard and delivers a part of their soul, which is necessary."
Van Laecke, more or less fluent in five languages — Flemish is spoken in his home region of Belgium — seeks to create an atmosphere of safety in rehearsal. Not for him the tyrannical approach of a director who insists that things be done his way.
"Everybody is vulnerable in a rehearsal room. I am, too," he said. "First of all we have to listen to each other and know each other, then make choices. Theater has nothing to do with fear but with being open to each other's ideas and souls."
With La Boheme, van Laecke planned to spend quite a lot of time in rehearsal on the big second act at the Cafe Momus, which features the chorus, but he also wanted to be sure not to give short shrift to the first act and the finale.
"It's important at the top of the first act that there is a lot of energy and chemistry and love when the four friends come together," he said. "Once Rodolfo is on his own and Mimi comes, then we enter another world where everything stands a little bit more still. We have the same experience in the fourth act, when Mimi dies. The structure of the first act and the fourth act are nearly the same."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.