Life is as complicated as an opera performance in Yorker Keith’s new literary work, The Other La Bohème. The setting is modern-day Manhattan, complete with a café that showcases singing wait staff and doubles as an art gallery, studio apartments full of painters and poets, and surprise performances are sung in Italian.
The Dolci Quattro, a group of four friends intent on making it in the challenging world of professional opera, is determined to stage a different version of this well-known work, doing everything they can to support each other when motivation is hardest to find. Luckily for them, wealthy patrons and loving family are always closer than they imagine.
Keith takes his novel into the realm of opera itself in many ways. The most obvious how the book is formatted – and the reader will notice this quickly, with each chapter heading listed as a “scene” and the book itself divided into “Acts.” And like any good opening scene, we meet the major characters immediately.
Four singers have been friends since college days and have dubbed themselves The Dolci Quattro, the sweet four. It’s through their singing, often in Italian and always translated, that readers who have no familiarity with this art form will be able to see its enduring legacy and relevance to modern life. Whatever personal situation arises, at least one of the four has an aria to help express the emotion.
By Keith using this technique opera, itself, takes center stage. Dialogue often swirls around what it means to sing or be a singer, becoming technical at times, yet exploring the emotional and physical demands of the profession, while descriptive passages can encompass many of the main characters at once, mimicking the most enlightening program notes.
Similarly, the main story line of The Dolci Quattro’s attempt to successfully stage a lesser version of the most famous opera performed in America, Puccini’s La Bohème, by performing the work of the same name composed by the lesser known Leoncavallo, echoes their frustrations as individual vocal artists. They are starting from near obscurity, each working in poverty–what was once referred to as Bohemia– but with passionate and undeniable talent.
Their gamble of performing a nearly unknown variation of the opera mirrors the often-difficult choices and explanations each character faces about their futures and their professional careers. Like many an opera production as well, the reader is asked to accept life for the Dolci Quattro in all of its most broad and painted strokes.
Tragedies are short-lived, triumphs universal, offering us all a glimpse into the unique world of lead singers and understudies and what it takes to make it to the top in a competitive field. In the repeated refrain of The Dolci Quattro, Keith’s work urges all of us to “Sing On!”