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Van Ryzin: ‘La Femme Bohème’ puts much-needed opera on Austin stage

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Liz Cass, mezzo soprano, is an Austin singer who is producing and singing in “La Femme Bohème,” an all-female version of Puccini’s opera.

If you ask Liz Cass why she wanted to stage an all-female cabaret production of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” in a live music venue, the mezzo-soprano smiles and offers a radically simple answer.

“We need more opera in Austin,” she says. “And it’s a no-brainer to do that. We already have the talent here.”

Teaming up with stage director Rebecca Herman, Cass is producing — and singing a major role in — “La Femme Bohème,” their version of Puccini’s romantic tragedy with all the roles sung by seven women and performed with minimal props, staged this coming weekend at the North Door, a venue that more commonly hosts live music or film events.

The one-woman orchestra is pianist Cynthia Wilson.

And if the opera’s chorus has been eliminated, the rest of Puccini’s opera remains.

It’s just that all of the roles will be women portraying women.

“These aren’t ‘pants roles’ that we’re doing,” says Cass, who sings the role of the painter Marcello. Instead, she explains, the all-female character portrayals are intended to celebrate the broad spectrum of gender identification today and the multitude of friendships and romances that people choose.

And Puccini’s opera about a circle of Parisian creatives who chose to live according to their own style dovetails with contemporary Austin, Cass adds.

“But it’s ultimately a human story, one that everyone can identify with,” she says.

“La Femme Bohème” has its audience already, too.

A crowd-sourced fundraising effort last month not only netted the needed $20,000 to pay for the show but sold out advance online tickets. (Tickets will be available at the door for both performances.)

“It’s about supply and demand,” says Cass, who has regularly sung solo roles in Austin Lyric Opera productions and is a vocal teacher as well as associate director of programs for the Armstrong Community Music School.

Producing opera on the scale of a traditional opera company is enormously expensive, setting up an exclusivity to attending that often keeps the art form out of reach to wider audiences.

But staged in casual venues, slimmed down to an affordable scale and presented with a little contemporary spin, opera, Cass maintains, can be a part of the accessible entertainment lineup in Austin.

“Operas were originally written to be entertainment for everyone,” says Cass. “They were the popular culture of their day. And opera still can be. We can keep the opera audience engaged in between bigger (ALO) productions and be the gateway for new audiences.”

At the North Door, “La Femme Bohème” will have English supertitles projected on a screen near the stage. And the three-act opera will be run with multiple intermissions, an emcee livening up the transitions.

“The place is a bar after all,” Cass says with a laugh. “The audience will want to get another drink.”

Cass is not new to an alternative presentation of opera.

Last year, she formed Margot, an operatic quintet that’s performed at the North Door. And she’s performed with alt-classical composer Peter Stopschinski as well as toured with Austin theater company Rude Mechanicals in the Los Angeles run of their original musical, “I’ve Never Been So Happy.”

Earlier this month, Cass sang selections from Bizet’s “Carmen” with the Greenville Light Opera Works, a South Carolina chamber opera presenter. And another chamber opera group in Knoxville, Tennessee, is already interested in producing “La Femme Bohème” there.

Cass is in the process of forming a nonprofit organization that she’s already dubbed LOLA, for “Local Opera, Local Artists,” and hopes to announce plans for another opera production for later this year.

“We’ve got such a talented community of classical musicians in Austin now,” she says. “It’s time we just do this.”

“La Femme Bohème”