San Diego Opera plans drive-in ‘La bohème’ next month

"La boheme" scenery for San Diego Opera's drive-in production.
This scenery, last seen on the San Diego Opera stage in 2010, will be used as the backdrop for the company’s drive-in “La boheme” production in the sports arena parking lot Oct. 27-Nov. 1.
(Courtesy of San Diego Opera)

The fully staged production will take place in the sports arena parking lot


Determined to open its season with Puccini’s “La bohème” despite the pandemic, San Diego Opera will move out of the concert hall and into the parking lot next month to become one of the first professional opera companies in America to present a “drive-in” production.

For four nights Oct. 24 through Nov. 1, nationally known opera singers and San Diego Symphony musicians will perform on stages set up outside the Pechanga Arena on Sports Arena Boulevard in San Diego. It will mark the first live performances for the opera company since February and the first for the symphony since March.

The drive-in show is the latest innovation for 55-year-old San Diego Opera, which has reinvented itself over the past six years as a smaller and more forward-looking, community-focused company. San Diego Opera has also recently made its mark in the field of cutting-edge performance technology. Last year it hosted the nation’s first-ever opera hackathon that brought together leaders in the fields of VR and augmented reality, 3D-mapping, artificial intelligent machine learning and creative coding to modernize opera performances for the future.

Audience members for “La bohème” will be charged by the carload as they arrive to park, and they will be able to tune in the voices and music through their car’s FM radio transmitter. For safety reasons, show-goers will be required to stay in their vehicles for the duration of the slimmed-down, 90-minute performances, except for bathroom breaks.

In June, San Diego Opera announced its six-show 2020-’21 season, most of which has been indefinitely postponed. But company General Director David Bennett said he was determined to find a way to produce the season-opener “La bohème” in a safe outdoor venue because he thought he’d never be able to reassemble the superstar cast he has booked for the show.

Soprano Angel Blue will play the role of Mimi in San Diego Opera's fall 2020 production of "La bohème."
Soprano Angel Blue will play the role of Mimi in San Diego Opera’s fall 2020 production of “La bohème.”
(Courtesy photo)

The parking lot production will feature seven principal singers, including Metropolitan Opera star soprano Angel Blue in her signature role as the star-crossed Parisian seamstress Mimi and fast-rising L.A. tenor Joshua Guerrero as her poet lover Rodolfo. It will also feature scenery and costumes from past productions. Video screens erected on either side of the stage will show close-ups of the singers and English translations of the Italian libretto.

Bennett said he knew the outdoor opera project had potential after attending Mainly Mozart’s successful alfresco concerts at the Del Mar Fairgrounds earlier this summer.

“I knew this drive-in format would work well for us and allow our audiences to enjoy live performances and a communal experience in a safe environment,” he said.

In order to ensure the safety of the singers, musicians and backstage crew, the company has spent months working out logistics to meet myriad state, county, city and artist labor union requirements for social distancing. Because of the challenge of mounting the show, San Diego Opera is only the second professional company to attempt it. New York’s Phoenecia Festival for the Voice did a one-night concert-style “Tosca” in a parking lot in late August, and Atlanta Opera is planning two one-act operas next month in a college baseball stadium.

Set in 1830s Paris, “La bohème” is a tragic love story famous for Rodolfo’s tender aria “che gelida manina,” where he falls in love at first sight with the sickly Mimi while cradling her “frozen little hand.” That meeting is re-created in “Rent,” the 1994 Broadway musical that was based on the 1896 opera. But under social-distancing guidelines, hand-holding is now prohibited. Singers require 120 square feet of space around them and can’t sing within 15 feet of one another.

To accommodate that distance, stage director Keturah Stickann has reimagined the opera as a memory tale Rodolfo recalls as he writes his Bohemian stories. This way the singers can perform alone in the spotlight as captured moments from his past. Because there will be no chorus for this production, the absence of choral numbers will help reduce the running time to an intermission-less 90 minutes.

Also per safety protocols, the orchestra will be reduced in size to 24 players to comply with current industry practices requiring six feet between all masked players in strings, harp and percussion and 12 feet between woodwind players, brass players and the conductor. A 2,500-square-foot raised platform is being set up near the stage for the ensemble and the wind and brass players will each be separated with a plexiglass shield designed just for this production.

Tickets to the shows will be sold by the carload, at $200 for as many people as there are seatbelts per vehicle. For premium parking, car tickets are $300. Company spokesman Edward Wilensky said the company’s goal is to attract 2,500 vehicles over the four-night run. Subscribers who purchased tickets to what was originally planned as an indoor production at the San Diego Civic Theatre will have first priority for parking and they already account for 40 percent of the company’s sales goal. Also helping the show’s bottom line is a generous underwriting donation by local arts patron Darlene Marcos Shiley.

Performances of “La bohème” are at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24, 27, 30 and Nov. 1. For tickets, visit

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune