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See Inside February 2011

La Bummer: Why La Bohème Is Better without Techy Hipsters and Health Care

In some cases, science and art really can't get along



Illustration by Matt Collins

Once a year I treat myself to a night at the opera. Not the Marx Brothers movie—I own a copy and watch it more than once a year. No, I mean an evening at the actual Metropolitan Opera, which is pretty much the most spectacular entertainment opportunity in New York City once the baseball season is over. Of course, my rare trips to both the Met and Yankee Stadium bring to mind the kangaroo in the saloon who responds to the bartender’s comment about not getting a lot of marsupial customers with, “Not at these prices.”

That old warhorse La Bohème was the opera I wound up at in early December. For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, it’s the story of Rodolfo and his deadbeat Parisian buddies who labor under the misapprehension that they are great poets and painters when in fact they are all world-class singers.

There is a lot of eating, drinking, flirting and general bourgie behavior, all of which would be only mildly tragic if not for the metaphorical elephant in the room. (The actual elephant is in Aida.) Because as soon as the character Mimì walks onstage, she coughs. And somebody who coughs in a theatrical production might as well be wearing a red shirt in a Star Trek landing party. For you see, as The Odd Couple’s Felix Unger succinctly captioned card number 16 in the “Great Moments in Opera” bubblegum card collection he created for kids who don’t like sports, “Mimì Gets Tuberculosis.”

As Mimì’s disintegrating lungs somehow still belted at jet-engine decibel levels, I thought about how the incredible advances in science and technology over the past century would negatively affect La Bohème’s story line. (The result would certainly not be the musical Rent. That show was so mid-1990s. None of those antediluvian people even had Facebook pages or Twitter accounts.)

In my version, today’s Rudy is a hipster taken to wearing a vintage trilby hat ironically. He lives in a studio apartment off Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. He might consider heating the room by burning the pages of the bad play he has been writing, except that it exists only inside his MacBook, albeit a three-year-old secondhand computer with only a 2.0-GHz processor rather than the 2.4-GHz processor on the newer models.

Downstairs neighbor Mimsy—she changed her name from Mimì after reading Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” in the fifth grade—is not an embroiderer but rather a freelance Web site designer. She shows up at Rudy’s not because her candle has gone out but because she wants to borrow a 23-watt compact fluorescent lightbulb (100-watt incandescent equivalent).

Mimsy clears her throat forcefully. Rudy asks if she’s okay. She says, “Believe it or not, I had TB. Picked it up volunteering at a homeless shelter. But I was treated by health care practi­tioners from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Bureau of Tuberculosis Control. They have a really effective Directly Observed Therapy treatment regimen. They gave me anti-TB meds and showed up here two or three times a week to actually watch me take the drugs. It’s incredibly effective as long as you don’t have a multidrug-resistant strain, which I didn’t. Anyway, I’m fine.”

“Cool,” Rudy responds. He knows he has no lightbulbs of any kind but tells Mimsy he’ll look because he wants to figure out a way to keep her around—if only to check out the Android smart phone she’s holding. Mimsy finds Rudy somewhat attractive despite the hat, so while he makes a show of investigating the contents of various cabinets, she Googles him.

“What do you do again?” she asks. “I’m a writer,” he says while rifling through a kitchen drawer. “Cool,” she says. The Google search turns up no publications.

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