In ‘La Boheme,’ choosing an artsy family

More than 150 years before “Friends,” there was “La Boheme.”

Like the popular 1990s TV show, Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, which the New Orleans Opera Association is staging at the Mahalia Jackson Theater this weekend, centers around a tightly knit group of spirited urban young people.

The cast features four creative bohemian men crowded into a small garret in 1830s Paris, and two attractive women who are as opposite as any two people can be. The bonds between them take them through the full gamut of life’s joys and sorrows, from comedic episodes to petty jealousies to selfless sacrifices in the face of a tragedy.

In short, these six young friends are each other’s family.

When the curtain rises on “La Boheme” on Friday night and Sunday afternoon, many of the singers will have a lot of friends and families in the audience. Eight of the 11 major and supporting cast members have ties to New Orleans.

Ranked among the top five most frequently performed operas in the world, “La Boheme” is largely centered around the touching and tragic love story between a dashing writer, Rodolfo (Noah Stewart), and Mimi (Norah Amsellem), a reclusive seamstress.

However, the other members of their clique have key roles, as well.

Two of them, Sarah Jane McMahon and Alfred Walker, are New Orleans born, raised and classically trained. McMahon sings the role of Musetta, the flirtatious prima donna and girlfriend of the painter, Marcello (Liam Bonner), one of the four bohemian roommates. Walker is the philosopher, Colline, another one of the four.

The fourth member of the quartet is Schaunard (Steven LaBrie), a musician.

McMahon, a soprano and Loyola graduate who studied voice there under the tutelage of the late Philip Frohnmayer, performed as Musetta with New Orleans Opera shortly after Hurricane Katrina, as well as in several other leading roles.

“I love singing Musetta because she is the ultimate firecracker,” McMahon said. “The minute she hits the stage in Act Two, she brings such life to the show.”

However, “She’s not just this prima donna who wants all the men to fall all over her. She’s also very caring. When we get to the last act, she is very sympathetic toward Mimi, who is dying, and you can see and feel her warmth coming through.”

McMahon is not only looking forward to singing in front of family and friends; she is enjoying working opposite Bonner again in the same roles they’ve sung together before.

In between singing engagements, McMahon is teaching some of Frohnmayer’s former students at Loyola, at the late voice teacher’s request. After Frohnmayer’s death on Sept. 27, McMahon was asked by the dean of the College of Music and Fine Arts to stay on until May.

“I miss him very much. He was very special,” she said.

The same sentiments were expressed by Walker, another of Frohnmayer’s former students in the 1990s. A bass-baritone who has sung numerous performances at The Met, La Scala and other prestigious houses, Walker called Frohnmayer “my teacher and best friend. I owe so much of who I am now to him.”

Walker also had high praise for New Orleans Opera Chorusmaster Carol Rausch. “I learned a lot from her. At the beginning of my career, she taught me how to be a professional,” Walker said.

Walker said Colline “is very philosophical and very mature compared to the other guys. But he’s a fun character. He’s always out for a good time, but he can be very serious when he needs to be.”

Colline’s shining moment in the opera comes in the final act when he sells his prized overcoat to help buy medicine for Mimi. Walker said he is looking forward to singing Colline’s sentimental aria, “Vecchia zimarra” (Old Cloak).

Other locals in named roles in the cast are Ivan Griffin (Benoit), Ken Weber (Alcindoro), Jesse Nolan (Parpignol), Beau Autin (Sergeant) and Scott McDonough (Customs Officer). Stewart also has family members living in New Orleans.

Robert Lyall conducts the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra for both performances. Christine McIntyre is the director.