In 1996, Jonathan Larson was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his rock musical Rent, which tells the story of struggling artists living in squalid conditions between the twin peaks of joy and tragedy.
Larson's source material was historic: Although the music and many of situations in his play were new, he based Rent on the 19th century opera La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, itself adapted from Henri Murger's fictional book Scenes de la vie de boheme.
The VOICExperience and Peter Shannon's Savannah Philharmonic, have brought the work full circle with a collaboration called Scenes de la vie de boheme Jan. 31 at the Lucas Theatre.
It's the Puccini opera, in the original Italian, performed by world-class soloists with full orchestra.
Shannon, the Philharmonic's artistic director and conductor, couldn't be happier. "In opera, they say A, B, C: Aida, Boheme, Carmen," he enthuses. "It's one of the most amazing pieces of operatic music."
This adaptation, however, has several crucial tweaks. It's what's called verismo, or real, opera.
"That basically means getting away from the decadence of huge opera like you need elephants and kings and queens and all this kind of stuff," Shannon explains. "This is a real situation, students in a fairly banal story, and yet the music is some of the most glorious that's ever been composed."
The soloists are Amy Shoremount-Obra (Musetta), Cooper Nolan (Rodolfo), Dan Kempson (Marcello), and Scott Russell (Colline), Meechot Marrero (Mimi) Matthew Morris (Schaunard).
If those character names look familiar to those who know and love Rent, they should. In Larson's world, they were called Maureen, Roger, Mark, Collins and Angel.
The Savannah production, workshopped during 2013 at the VOICE center in Florida, re-casts them in the 21st Century in New York's Bushwick district. "It's kind of like a hippie ghetto where people are writing plays on their iPads," says Shannon. "Instead of the candle, there's an iPhone that's being used as a light."
The adaptation and staging are by Edwin Cahill, a longtime member of the VOICE community who recently toured as a swing actor, singer and musician in Sweeney Todd.
Musically, says VOICE executive director Maria Zouves, "You don't touch Puccini. But the difference between them as struggling artists a hundred years ago and now is not that different. So we thought we'd look at it from a modern perspective. And honestly, you buy into it immediately.
"So many of the folks that were there said 'You know, I don't like it when you change it, but I loved this.'"
Zouves says the choice was made early on not to stage the full La Boheme as it exists. "You don't ever want to do a big production if you don't have the bells and whistles for one," she explains. "We believe in quality and not quantity. So when we came together to say 'Well, what are we going to do?' we were all on the same page immediately.
"We decided to do it as, what Peter likes to say, concert version. But we're kicking it up a notch from that and doing staging with it."
It's slightly shorter, due to the absence of the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus. "We've chosen to cut out the chorus bits," Shannon explains.
"Simply because of the logistics; they had the Christmas concert, and now they've got another big concert coming up. So they've got a lot on their plate. It's basically most of Boheme, with about 30 minutes cut out of the two hours."
The second Savannah VOICE Festival will take place in August. Zouves, a soprano who operates the company with her husband, legendary baritone Sherill Milnes, is intent on bringing opera to different generations in new and exciting ways. Using "young, emerging artists."
The Savannah experiment, Zouves says, "has exceeded any expectation. It's gone beyond what we thought was even possible. We are over the moon with Savannah. And I think Savannah has embraced us and helped us to do our mission."