San Diego Opera to stage drive-in ‘La Bohème’

The San Diego Opera will present “La Bohème” Oct. 24, 27, 30 and Nov. 1 at the Pechanga Arena parking lot.
The San Diego Opera will present “La Bohème” Oct. 24, 27, 30 and Nov. 1 at the Pechanga Arena parking lot.

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To kick off a season that will likely be one for the history books, the San Diego Opera will present a production that has stood the test of time. But with live theater curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, this time it will be staged in a whole new way.

Billed as San Diego’s first “drive-in opera,” Puccini’s “La Bohème” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24, 27, 30 and Nov. 1 at the Pechanga Arena parking lot at 3500 Sports Arena Blvd. Guests will remain in their cars and the opera will be transmitted to car stereos via FM radio. Large screens will show simulcasts of the singers onstage.

Masks and social distancing will be enforced when patrons leave their cars to use the restroom. San Diego Opera asks that guests only bring passengers who are in their household.

Tickets are $200 to $300 per carload.

“La Bohème is probably the most popular opera, and we had already planned to open this season with this production,” said San Diego Opera general director David Bennett. “We plan our season 18 months in advance, so the cast was arranged and singers had been contracted. But with COVID we had to decide how to present it. Most opera companies are canceling or postponing, but we had the weather to our advantage. So we decided to take it outdoors.”

Inspired by Mainly Mozart, which has been holding concerts in the parking lot of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, San Diego Opera decided on a similar model.

“Opera is a much bigger endeavor to take on — there are singers, orchestra, people backstage with wigs and makeup, and those that come and go with scenery,” Bennett said. “We had to find a way to ensure the safety of the audience but also the employees. That’s where we came from and that has been what we have worked on.”

With the help of a safety officer, San Diego Opera worked with the county to obtain permission and secured the format and location.

San Diego Opera general director David Bennett
“We had to find a way to ensure the safety of the audience but also the employees,” says San Diego Opera general director David Bennett.

“People ask me, ‘Why take the risk?’ and I say we are an opera company; that’s what we do, that’s why we exist,” Bennett said. “If we can work hard and develop a way to do what we are meant to do in a safe way … it’s important for our community, but we are providing employment for people that were not working.”

Soprano Ana Maria Martinez makes her debut as Mimi, and tenor Joshua Guerrero takes the stage as Rodolfo in the story about young love between artists in Paris. San Diego Symphony music director Rafael Payare conducts; all the musicians are members of the symphony.

“It’s the iconic opera and it’s a love story, it’s tragic and it’s beautiful,” Bennett said. “If you have seen the film ‘Moonstruck,’ ‘La Bohème’ is the opera the main characters attend. Or if you have seen the musical ‘Rent,’ you have seen ‘La Bohème.’ The music draws you in in a very easy way. And with the drive-in opera, the music is transmitted through your car radio so you can have the windows up and sing along. How often do you get to do that at the opera?”

The drive-in opera is the first in a six-production season.

“We have large operas and small productions,” Bennett said. “I think we will return to this [drive-in] format in the spring, but the rest of the productions are up in the air. We are looking at filming some and making them available to members. We will develop plans to do things safely and will roll them out as soon as we can. We are thinking about the future, and we will make decisions as we can.”

He said San Diego Opera will communicate with its subscribers as decisions are made.

“We have to be nimble. If we can do that, we’ll turn and our audience will turn with us and we will find new ways to do things,” Bennett said. “To be nimble means you have to change quickly, and that is hard. It’s a challenge, but a challenge we are excited to take on.”

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