La Boheme and the extinction of the fat lady

Throughout the years, opera has fallen into a certain stereotype: Fancy, expensive, formal, elite and ritzy.

But Opera Grand Rapids (one of the 30 surviving opera companies in the United States) wants to show the community that opera is not just a fat lady in a helmet with horns; nor is it custom for attendees to wear Victorian wigs, top hats or spectacles.

This common misconception of the art comes from its origin. Just like how films used to be black and white, opera used to be a fat lady "parking and barking." While film has evolved, opera hasn't had as easy of a transition.

"Well-rounded people try new things. Opera has the ability to sweep you off your feet in a way that few other art forms can," said Sarah Mieras, public relations manager for Opera Grand Rapids. "The reason being that it is a multi-media show. Costumes, translations, singing, sets; you name it, we've got it. Except for mics; opera singers don't need them, unlike in musicals."

This May, Opera Grand Rapids will be showing its Chestnut (opera equivalent to blockbuster) of the year, "La Boheme," the ninth most-performed play worldwide. This opera will be a straight-up performance, where everything onstage is part of the show. The performers are always moving, the sets changing, the translations projected to the audience, and the singing never stops.

"Opera is a very athletic art form," Mieras said. "This is another common misconception people have with opera. There are rarely fat ladies anymore. The singers constantly have to train their bodies to keep up with the exhausting backlash of a performance."

Along with the heavy hitters, "La Boheme" has young up-and-comer Fitah Rasendrahasina. This Calvin student grabbed the lead role of Rodolfo after performing several small parts for Opera Grand Rapids in the past.

Opera Grand Rapids is the oldest opera company in the state and shares their conductor, Robert Lyall with the Nation's oldest opera company, New Orleans Opera Association. Lyall not only conducts and chooses the pieces for each season, but he also finds seasoned veterans like Alyson Cambridge (Mimi) for roles in his shows. Cambridge has performed with the Polish National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and played the same role (Mimi) for the Metropolitan Opera.