Living in the city, following their dreams, falling in and out of love, all while barely scraping by: this is the reality of life for the main characters in La bohème, but also for today’s Millennials. The modern Millennial is seen on TV shows like How I Met Your Mother, Broad City, Shameless, and more. These shows spin vivid comedy and drama out of a generation learning to find its footing while dealing with modern challenges. But if these stories seem newly minted, then Puccini was truly the ultimate hipster; Bohème has been popularizing the plight of the young since way before it was cool.
One striking similarity between the opera’s characters and their Millennial counterparts is how they baffle the generation that came before. Consider Musetta and her “protector,” Alcindoro: despite his wealth, the elderly gentleman becomes the butt of the joke. He is powerless to keep the free-spirited Musetta from flirting with her ex-, the impoverished painter Marcello. But it’s not just Alcindoro who finds himself unable to comprehend the young; the Bohemians’ landlord Benoît is flummoxed by his tenants, who avoid the rent and pawn their belongings just to scrape by. Sound familiar? It’s precisely this lack of deference to what came before that earns Millennials their reputation of expecting entitlement in life.
La bohème, however, offers a different perspective. These characters see themselves as willing to lead unglamorous lives in order to follow their passions. They’re artists who value their intellectual freedom above all else, the way Millennials today pursue work that has an impact. As the most college-educated generation in history, Millennials seek work that allows them to exercise intellectual and creative faculties and reject the pursuit of short-term wealth.
But Millennials, be warned: La bohème reveals that life outside the mainstream is not a life without consequences. It is, after all, a tragedy. Young people are not as invincible as they seem, and as Mimì succumbs to her illness, audiences are reminded of the concerns that come along with a lack of funds and care.
Like Millennials today, this opera’s young people must make choices between their well-being and their passions. Despite their love, Mimì breaks off her relationship with Rodolfo in hopes of finding a more comfortable life with a richer man. But by then it’s too late; the characters come together in the final act to offer her what little support they can, but despite their intelligence and their love for her, they can’t stop disease.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from La bohème and the Millennials, it’s that the conversation around young people isn’t new. What has made this opera an enduring audience favorite is its ability to appeal to that time in life when one must navigate the challenges of early adulthood. All generations from Puccini’s to our own understand what it’s like to be young, poor, and pursuing big dreams. La bohème stands as a testament to opera’s ability to unite classes, countries, and generations.