A Century Of Progress
Well, not really. On my drive home from running errands, I heard part of the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday broadcast of La Boheme. It amazes me that an Opera set in 1830 and written in 1896, would have a setting that is so very timely in 2009.
Excerpts about the setting of the story-- I'm leaving out most of what happens in the opera-- illustrate the point nicely:
Act I. Paris, Christmas Eve, c. 1830. In their Latin Quarter garret, the painter Marcello and poet Rodolfo try to keep warm by burning pages from Rodolfo's latest drama. They are joined by their comrades — Colline, a young philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician who has landed a job and brings food, fuel and funds. But while they celebrate their unexpected fortune, the landlord, Benoit, arrives to collect the rent. Plying the older man with wine, they urge him to tell of his flirtations, then throw him out in mock indignation.Yes, it's Christmas eve. And of all impossible things, Marcello and Rodolfo are so cold that they burn Rodolfo's manuscript to stay warm. Art is a luxury. Writing and theater are luxuries. The paper is more valuable in that moment as fuel. The rent is unpaid. The reason why there is food is that Schaunard, unlike his three un- or underemployed friends, has gotten a job.
Act II. The bill is a lot more than Schaunard expects, so he manages through a scheme to leave it for Musetta's rich paramour.Even though he's got a job, even though he has some money, Schaunard still cannot pay for an evening out for this friends. Is this because evenings out are luxuries and are priced beyond the means of ordinary people?
Act III. Rodolfo tells Marcello he wants to separate from his fickle sweetheart (Mimi). Pressed further, he breaks down, saying Mimì is dying; her ill health can only worsen in the poverty they share....Mimi, it turns out, has "consumption," which probably means tuberculosis, and, of course, there is no treatment. Her persistent coughing and her illness and weakness emerge. There is, of course, no universal health care. Or anything resembling treatment because Mimi and her friends have no money.
Act IV. Months later, Rodolfo and Marcello lament their loneliness in the garret. Colline and Schaunard bring a meager meal.... Musetta bursts in, saying Mimì is downstairs, too weak to climb up. As Rodolfo runs to her, Musetta tells how Mimì has begged to be taken to her lover to die. While Mimì is made comfortable, Marcello goes with Musetta to sell her earrings for medicine, and Colline leaves to pawn his cherished overcoat. Alone, Mimì and Rodolfo recall their first days together, but she is seized with coughing. When the others return, Musetta gives Mimì a muff to warm her hands and prays for her life. Mimì dies quietly, and when Schaunard discovers she is dead, Rodolfo runs to her side, calling her name.There is no health care. The poverty is unabated. Remaining items of property are pawned to purchase medicine. The overcoat is pawned. How will Colline go out of the garrett without a coat? Mimi dies anyway.
When I first heard this opera, many years ago, it seemed romantic. The characters seemed to be like Beatniks or Hippies who had chosen this life (this is the premise behind, Rent, an adaptation of La Boheme). The Bohemians had chosen art over commerce, literature over capitalism, and they were, in my mind anyway, voluntarily impoverished. They had chosen their life. They were archetypical starving artists, and their lack of money was voluntary and, in fact, their struggle was ennobling. I could choose that life if I wanted to.
But when I heard the very same opera today, it seemed strangely different. Surprisingly, this time the poverty and the lack of resources and the lack of medical insurance and the rent being behind and not having enough money, even though one has a job, to take out one's friends, seemed to me to be a rather common situation, something that happens around me with remarkable frequency of late. There was nothing voluntary or intentional about the suffering. At all. I was shocked by this revelation, though in retrospect it seems a very modest insight.
So I ask, is this where we've come? Is this what we've come to? Are we going to have an experience in this country akin to life in the 1830's Parisian underclass? Is this what we have to show for the past century? Tell me it isn't. Convince me.