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Young cast helps make old opera new

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Ultimately, "La Bohème" is a young opera.

Since its debut more than a century ago, Puccini's tragic romance about two young lovers struggling in 19th-century bohemian Paris has arguably become the basis of all subsequent struggling-artist love stories.

One of the most beloved and frequently performed operas of all times, "La Bohème," which opens Austin Lyric Opera's season Saturday, never seems to stop ricocheting through the generations. Indeed, a whole new generation copped to the story in the 1990s when the Broadway musical "Rent" — essentially "La Bohème" redux — popped on the scene.

And while the production presented by ALO keeps Puccini's story in the 19th century (created by the San Diego Opera, the sets riff on the art of painter Toulouse-Lautrec), the cast for this "La Bohème" is most decidedly young. Forget not-so-youthful singers playing the part of young lovers. The cast for this "La Bohème" blends right in with the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" already filled with emerging singers.

With his boyish good looks, 30-year-old French tenor Sébastien Guèze looks, well, more like a member of a boy band than an opera cast. And the Paris, France, resident has little trouble identifying with his character, Rodolfo, a struggling poet who lives in a garret apartment in that city's Latin Quarter.

Guèze, in fact, lives in a top-floor walk-up apartment just blocks from the Quarter. And like the young artist's character he plays, Guèze also has buddies over to knock back a glass of wine before heading out for a night on the town. " 'La Bohème' is like my life," he says over lunch between rehearsals recently. "I do the same things (Rodolfo) does."

Well, not exactly. Guèze is a healthier, 21st-century version of the rogue he portrays onstage. Lunch for Guèze is salmon and salad. And after rehearsals, he heads to the YMCA to swim laps. And forget communication by the hand-delivered letters of the original "La Bohème" era. ALO general director Kevin Patterson first considered Guèze for the role based on the singer's YouTube videos.

Soprano Dina Kuznetsova, who plays Rodolfo's love interest, Mimi, likewise doesn't feel a vast emotional distance between her life and her character. "Who hasn't been a struggling artist or student waiting for a big break in life?" she says. "(I'm) really not that far away from that part of my life. It's easy to tap into the emotion of the role."

But her lifestyle doesn't hold many similarities to the starving, tuberculosis-stricken Mimi. A native of Russia now based in Ohio, Kuznetsova looks every bit the urbane young mother. And with her 5-year-old son with her in Austin, she has to juggle her professional demands. After rehearsals, rides on the Zilker Park train, play dates in the park and excursions to Whole Foods Market and BookPeople round out the mother-son time.

Both Guèze and Kuznetsova say that no matter what twist new productions bring to "La Bohème," the story of young love and artistic struggle continues to resonate with every new generation of young performers such as themselves.

"The story works every time (it comes around)," say Kuznetsova. "Why mess with it?"

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'La Boheme'

When: 6 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 and 13, 3 p.m. Nov. 15

Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $29-$133

Information: 472-5992