A scene from La Bohème during a dress rehearsal.
The Austin Opera, Dallas Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Opera San Antonio (pictured here in May 2018) have formed the Texas Opera Alliance. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The world’s most famous opera has received an update, thanks to a young student at the Anne Frank Inspire Academy. Inspired by a contest initiated through Opera San Antonio, seventh grader Alexia Farias gave La Bohème, which debuted in 1896, a 21stcentury twist.

The original version ends with the character of Mimi dying tragically in the arms of her erstwhile lover Rodolfo, because as poor, bohemian artists in Paris, neither could afford treatment for her tuberculosis. In the version Farias wrote, however, Rodolfo later wishes upon a star, and Mimi comes back to life.

“It was true love,” Farias said, citing fairy tales like Thumbelina as inspiration for her alternate ending.

Before performing in La Bohème on Thursday, May 17, and Saturday, May 19, at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, Opera San Antonio singers visited the Anne Frank school on May 10 to perform the first-place alternate ending Farias wrote, along with second- and third-place new endings written by students Noah Mata and Catalina Devia.

Opera San Antonio soprano Jessica Jones, who will play the role of Musetta, visited the school with fellow performers. The students “were so incredible and so engaged,” she said. “It was really cool to be there with them in their environment, and watch all of their peers get excited about the endings they’d written.”

Also visiting the school was tenor Derrek Stark, who will perform the lead role of Rodolfo. “It was just really fun, the energy in the room,” he said.

“In our day and age,” Stark said, “opera really is not as well-liked as it once was. So getting the next generation involved in that process” is a good thing, he said. “From their point of view, being creative like that is really helpful and inspiring.”

Opera San Antonio Executive Director Liz Tullis credits board member Linda Hardberger with the idea of having area students write alternate endings.

“I’ve been asking everybody, what can we do to make opera relevant?” Tullis said. “What are ways to make it more fun?”

Hardberger was inspired by a YouTube clip of child prodigy Alma Deutscher, who at age 11 wrote an alternate, full-length operatic version of the Cinderella story. Hardberger approached the Anne Frank Inspire Academy through connections, in part because of the school’s noted focus on education innovation, she said.

“We just try to create different opportunities for our kids that they wouldn’t experience in any other school or learning environment,” said Nino Etienne, the academy’s head of school. “We feel that impacts learning just as much as academics.”

Even before winning, Farias already had experience as writer, she said, having used the Episode app to share short stories with her friends. In fact, she said, she adapted one of her previous stories for her alternate La Bohème ending.

A self-described “bad speller,” sixth grader and second-place winner Noah Mata said of seeing his ending performed live, “it felt amazing just to be up there, just to be called. Even if I didn’t win, I at least gave it a shot. I came close.”

Mata concisely described his alternate ending: “Basically I made Rodolfo’s book a bestseller, and he got a lot of money to pay for Mimi’s medicine, and she got well, and then they lived happily together.”

A scene from La Bohème during a dress rehearsal.
A scene from La Bohème during a dress rehearsal. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

All three winners were invited to a behind-the-scenes visit with Opera San Antonio performers, led by Artistic Director Adam Diegel, prior to the Tuesday dress rehearsal the week of the show. All Anne Frank Inspire Academy students and their parents were invited to watch the dress rehearsal. Welcoming students and their parents to watch rehearsals for free is a common practice for the opera company, Tullis said.

Diegel, who along with Opera leadership helped choose the winning alternate endings, said he believes the art form can be made more relatable by such educational collaborations. “Actually meeting the singers, having them come to their schools, taking pictures, shaking hands, all of those things are important,” he said.

“To see that these are real, ordinary people, and to see their personalities, get that personal connection with them,” can make the difference for kids, Diegel said.

As he prepared to direct the pit orchestra during the dress rehearsal, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, music director and conductor of the San Antonio Symphony, concurred. “The kids are the most important thing,” he said.

“For them, it’s a life-changing experience,” he said. “It’s really something that stays with your memory for the rest of your life.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...