The first time that my high school piano teacher ever saw La Bohme, his program listed the names of two upstart unknowns for the parts of Mimi and Rodolfo ? Katia Ricciarelli and Luciano Pavarotti. The rest is history.

I wasn’t able to experience Eastman Opera Theatre’s production of La Bohme more than once, so I missed out on what I’ve heard was a solid cast Friday and Sunday.

I saw the opening night performance this past Thursday, and felt that the cast members did a wonderful job performing Puccini’s music. However, one performer made me feel as though the program I was holding would be priceless someday ? Janinah Burnett, the soprano who portrayed Mimi.

I was very surprised to learn that this was Burnett’s first major role in an opera. The second year masters student studies under Carol Webber and will play Violetta in Oberlin’s upcoming production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” this summer.

“She was born singing,” said fellow castmember Oliver Henderson, who played Benoit in the Thursday and Saturday performances. “22 year olds don’t sound like that.”

Burnett’s character, Mimi, dies at the end of the opera. “I was reduced to a puddle at the end of every show,” Henderson said.

Henderson energetically acted and sang the part of Benoit, the serious landlord whom the Bohemians cajole with wine and chatter into forgetfulness about the rent they owe. Little things like a wine glass broken while Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard were toasting each other later on with the same wine were barely noticed, if at all, by audience members. Likewise, a candle that blew out prematurely during Act One was gracefully dealt with by Burnett and Cheol Min Jin’s Rodolfo. Because anything can happen during a live performance, students need to expect the unexpected ? Burnett and Jin didn’t miss a beat.

Audience favorite Lucas Meachem had excellent stage presence and a powerful voice as Marcello, the man into whom the flirtatious Musetta, played by Erin Grzybowski in this cast, sinks her claws.

Jin’s animated, clear-as-glass tenor made the well-known aria, “Che Gelida Manina,” float off of the stage with complete tranquility. He and Burnett sounded glorious on duets like “O Soave Fanciulla,” with which Act One closed altogether too soon.

While the audience wasn’t at all packed, the Eastman Theatre is an enormous space to fill and I have heard that the crowds improved as the weekend progressed. Melissa Kelly, Elizabeth Brooks, Choong-Hun Lee and Munenori Sugetani starred in the cast for the closing show ? Sunday’s matinee performance at 2 p.m.

I attended Thursday night’s performance with a neuroscience major. Knowing that I was with a person who had never seen an opera before made me think about how much I appreciated Bohme the first time I saw it ? when it was at the Auditorium Center with English supertitles. Opera is a daunting form of entertainment for many students, and a complete, line-by-line translation adds a certain element to the experience.

While it didn’t detract from the performance for me, I think that knowing why Colline sings to his coat in the last act adds another dimension to La Bohme. Baritone J. J. Hudson expressed the emotions found within the puzzle of Italian lyrics as he sang to his coat, but knowing lyrics can often be the difference between a good and a great time for first-time operagoers.

Weiss can be reached at

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