Focus : Strictly Not 'La Boheme' : PBS BRINGS AUSTRALIAN DIRECTOR'S UPDATE OF THE OPERA TO 'GREAT PERFORMANCES'

TIMES MUSIC WRITER

At 31, Baz Luhrmann is no Wunderkind operatic stage director, but he's certainly younger than many of his international colleagues. And, some would say, more imaginative.

The Australian director's updated "La Boheme"--created for the Sydney-based Australian Opera in 1990 and shown on PBS' "Great Performances" series Wednesday--was his first operatic assignment. It predated his internationally acclaimed film, the award-winning "Strictly Ballroom," by two years.

And it happened only because of another music/theater project that made a mark for Luhrmann, he remembers.

In 1988, Luhrmann recalls, "I did a music/theater piece in the outback," the "enormous success" of which was noted by the operatic powers that be in Sydney.

Luhrmann was then invited by the company to stage its new "Boheme," ostensibly reset in 1950s Paris with the purpose of bringing "a new, young audience to opera." (Puccini's most popular opera originally took place in the French capital in 1830.)

The tactic worked. The audiences came.

Not only was the production--with semi-abstract sets, brightly colored, 20th-Century costumes and actually young principals--artistically and financially successful, it also reportedly cost less than most of the company's recent productions.

Luhrmann went on to create a new opera, "Lake Lost," with composer Felix Meagher, which also succeeded with the public. Then, again for Australian Opera, he tackled a new mounting of Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." That has also been well received; this summer the Australian company, with Luhrmann in charge, takes it to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

The stage director's worldwide fame, however, has come from his 1992 hit film, "Strictly Ballroom," on the surface a backstage look at ballroom competitions, Down Under. Modestly, Luhrmann has called it "a very simple fairy tale, treated in a highly theatricalized way."

When he was first approached to direct an opera, "I hadn't seen a lot of operas," says Luhrmann, by phone from Melbourne. "So, I started attending. I found that 90% of the operas I saw didn't work. They were simply concerts with shaky sets.

"When I did see some successful productions, I realized that what the great composers--Mozart or Puccini or whoever--were doing was not writing concert music. They were telling a story."

He subsequently spent a year preparing the production, all the time with the idea of "going back to the notion of a story being told in music."

He went to Paris, "to the roots of the (Henry) Murger story, to the places which gave birth to Bohemianism," which inspired Puccini. Luhrmann's purpose, he says, was "to make the storytelling as rich and clear as possible."

Luhrmann acknowledges that "theatrical opera on television doesn't usually work, because it can't capture the connection between the audience and the cast." This "Boheme," for instance, used visible stagehands who moved the sets and were literally in the faces of the theater audience. "It's a little like a photocopy," he says.

After concluding his trek to Edinburgh, Luhrmann will go back to film work. He has a 20th Century Fox production deal, "allowing me to continue my work in the theater," while dreaming up more film projects. Next year, he says, he will make a film in Los Angeles.

"I don't do a lot of projects because each thing I do seems to take a couple of years."

In "La Boheme," a young cast of Australian singers--this performance was filmed in Sydney in January, 1993--is headed by Cheryl Barker as Mimi and David Hobson as Rodolfo. Hobson is scheduled to make his United States debut in San Francisco Opera's "Dangerous Liaisons" in September; in Australia, he has been called "the Mel Gibson of opera." The conductor is Julian Smith.

"La Boheme" airs on "Great Performances" Wednesday at 7 p.m. KCVR and 9 p.m. on KCET, and KPBS .

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