PETER BISLEY catches up with striking tenor Jesus Garcia, playing Rodolfo in the NBR New Zealand Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.

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INTERNATIONALLY acclaimed tenor Jesus Garcia has already performed in the grand opera houses of Europe and the USA, but his role as Rodolfo in NBR New Zealand Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème has brought him to the southern hemisphere for the first time in his life. He’s excited about being in New Zealand, and news of his present role drew wistful responses from his friends and colleagues in Philadelphia, USA. “I have wanderlust... I crave new things and different places, and I feel more at home when the unknown surrounds me. I find I get a bit stir crazy if I’m at home for too long.” Garcia is going to take the opportunity to see as much of New Zealand as he can, planning a road trip in the break between the Wellington and Auckland performances with his mother. “We’re both big nature freaks,” he explains. “We’re just going to drive around and see where the road takes us.”

La Bohème holds special significance for Garcia. “As a young singer, it was my dream role to do Rodolfo.” He played him in a year long season on Broadway, an acclaimed production directed by Baz Luhrmann which broke opera into the traditional stronghold of musical theatre. The groundbreaking show Rent was based on La Bohème, and it was the producers of Rent who finally nailed down Luhrmann to direct Bohème: “They thought that if opera was ever going to have a chance on Broadway it was with this production,” Garcia explains. “It has the most accessible story: telling the story of Everyman,” and its overarching themes are the key: “it’s this group of young artists who want to reject the bourgeois, they want to reject their parents’ values: they feel like the can build a better world through art and rebellion, and I think every generation has that.”

He first performed the role as a resident artist at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts operatic finishing school in Philadelphia. In that production, he and the prima donna were the exact ages of their characters Rodolfo and Mimi, and the youth of this New Zealand season’s cast excite him: “I think it’s great seeing a Bohème where people are actually close to the age of the characters… it definitely brings a freshness.” Despite all his experience in the role, Garcia tries not to think he has “ever really arrived as far as a character is concerned.” He is enthusiastic about director Patrick Nolan: “I really love working with him, because he strips any kind of operatic tendencies.” Directors like Nolan and Luhrmann “don’t let us do the traditional opera gestures, or anything clichéd about opera… [they] strip it all down and it almost looks like a film, but you’re singing.”

Garcia believes La Bohème has a universal quality that bestows its popularity: “I think it’s probably the perfect first opera, because the music is so beautiful and the story is so honest and real. I think it’s something everyone can relate to.” This season’s production is set today, and Garcia thinks that this gives truth to the original intent of the characters: “They’re in the forward curve of fashion, in the way they look and present themselves.” Much like the bohemian class of his Rodolfo, Garcia himself has the look and manner of a rock star, a world which he freely admits gave him equal inspiration. “Seeing all that stuff [on MTV] just fuelled the fire really.” Growing up, he wanted to be a rock musician: “I’ve written something like 30 songs, and it’s definitely something I want to do something with, but my opera career has been quite good to me, and I’m keeping my focus there for the moment.”

Certainly Jesus Garcia’s career has followed an attractive trajectory, with La Bohème a particularly fruitful role. As for the future, Garcia hopes to have the opportunity to perform two of Puccini’s other heroes: Calaf from Turandot and Dick Johnson from La Fanciulla del West. “But both of those roles are for a heavier voice than mine, so I’m hoping one day I’ll just get famous enough that someone will let me do it anyway,” he laughs. And will he come back to New Zealand and sing them for us? “My god! That would be great. Yeah, maybe not for a little while, but that’d be great!”