When Fishtown resident Sarah Beckham first saw a performance of Puccini’s classic opera La Boheme, she was a freshman at Baylor University in Texas.
It was only the second opera she’d ever seen.
“I loved it right away,” she recalled. “I remember sitting there watching the singers and thinking, ‘This is exactly what I want to do. I want to be up there singing.’”
And, that’s exactly what she’ll be doing this weekend when the Center City Opera Theater presents La Boheme on the main stage of the Prince Music Theater.
The soprano will sing the leading role of Mimi for two of the three performances: on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.
“It’s one of those roles that sopranos will die for,” said Beckham. “I wanted to do it so badly.”
The show focuses on a group of young Bohemians living in Paris in the 1830s. One of them is Mimi, who becomes romantically involved with Marcello, a painter. The other pair of lovers are the poet Rodolfo and his old flame Musetta.
As the story unfolds, these relationships are strained because of poverty, jealousy and disease.
The singers in this fully staged production are members of the Center City Opera Theater’s (CCOT) Young Artists program, which promotes the career development of talented young opera stars.
Beckham started preparing for her role well before rehearsals began.
She began by listening to a CD with Italian soprano Mirelle Freni singing Mimi.
“She’s my absolute favorite Mimi,” said Beckham. “The beauty of her voice is so exciting…I listened not because I was trying to imitate her, ut because she’s inspiring.”
Studying a translation of La Boheme from the original Italian into English was another early phase of her preparation.
The opera will be sung in Italian with English superscript.
“I make ure I have every word in the score translated,” aid Beckham, who does that when preparing any role in a foreign language.
She needs to know the meaning so she can act as well as sing.
Next, she started practicing her role, both on her own and with her coach and voice teacher in New York.
Then, came four weeks of rehearsals, six days a week.
In mastering the role of Mimi during rehearsals, one challenge for Beckham was that the personality of Mimi is so different from her own.
“She’s a very sweet, delicate, shy character and I’m extremely outgoing,” she said. “So, I have to be much more shy and timid than I am normally.”
As for singing in Italian, that comes easily to Beckham.
Most operas she’s sung have been in Italian, and she’s delighted with every opportunity.
“I love singing in Italian,” she says. “It’s the purest language, only five vowel sounds. It’s all very straightforward and smooth.”
This is the second opera she’s sung with Center City Opera Theater this season.
In February, she sang the role of Countess in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
She’s sung on other stages this season as well.
In September, Beckham was far from home.
She was in Moscow to participate in the semifinals of an international voice competition. Though she did not win, she said it was an honor to be one of only five Americans chosen to participate.
Back in the United States, she sang with Opera in the Heights, a Houston company.
Soon after, she made her debut with the Asheville Lyric Opera in North Carolina.
There will be no time to relax after her performance this Sunday afternoon.
The very next day, Beckham tarts rehearsals with the Lyric Opera of Virginia, where she’ll sing the role of Mikaela in Carmen.
Then it’s back to Philadelphia for the final production of the Center City Opera Theater: the world premiere in June of Slaying the Dragon.
Beckham will take on two separate roles on different performance days.
Immediately after that, she starts rehearsals with Opera New Jersey, where she’s been cast as Josephine in HMS Pinafore to be presented in July.
The Texas native doesn’t mind the hectic schedule — she’s doing what she’s wanted to do ever since she saw that first performance of La Boheme as a freshman at Baylor University.
“Singing for an audience is the best part. It makes all the preparation well worth it,” she said. ldquo;And I’m eagerly looking forward to singing the role I’ve always wanted to sing.” ••
If you go …
The Center City Opera Theater presents Puccini’s La Boheme Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at the Prince Music Theater, at 1412 Chestnut St. Ticket prices range from $39 to $79 and $10 student rush, and are available online at www.OperaTheater.org