Puccini's opera La boheme is a simple tale of poor yet happy artists but then one dies.

Unusually for an opera that's not based on an Important Historical Event, we can trace the real-life origins of these characters and their drama. It all started with a writer who pillaged his friends' lives for material.

Henry Murger became the opera's hero, Rodolfo, and his girlfriend, Lucille Louvet, is the real-life model for the heroine Mimi. Murger's early literary struggles covered a gamut of genres and styles. Before his stories of bohemian life took off, his greatest success was an ad in verse for Rogers Dentures which appeared on buses and posters all over Paris.

It concludes:
"ROGERS! Without thy skill I should have died/
or ever lived a prisoner of my house/
The toothless widow of a living spouse."

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When the Henry met Lucille, she was with another man whom she had contrived to meet by pretending she couldn't find the key to her building (prefiguring the business with the lost key which helps get the lovers together for Puccini).

But Murger was captivated and they were soon a couple. He wrote a description of their meeting for a tabloid called Le Corsaire-Satan, in which he called Lucille Louise and himself Rodolphe. It made the front page and paid him two weeks' rent.

Murger was on to something with his take on bohemian life but slow to realise it; the second instalment of the Bohemians' story did not appear until a year later. Louvet was renamed Mimi and would prove a rich source of material during the pair's on-again, off-again relationship. While it was off, Louvet lived the experiences that Murger would transform into fiction when it was on again.

But there are significant differences between the real and fictional characters. Murger was an unattractive man, who went bald early and had a defective lachrymal gland, which meant he had a permanent tear running down his face. Louvet was no beauty either. She bore the scars of smallpox and it was said that she never smiled.

Like their operatic counterparts, although less romantically, Murger and Louvet eventually broke up for good. Sometime after that split, she turned up at his door suffering from TB and moved in with him to die. That didn't work out, either. Unlike Mimi's, her last moments were spent in hospital.

By then an ambitious writer called Theodore Barriere had started working with Murger to turn his sketches into a play. He introduced the sentimental note to the stories that has carried over into Puccini's telling. The play was a hit and Murger was invited to produce a prose version which made him enough money to leave impoverished bohemian life behind.

Today, the re-invention of Rodolphe, Mimi and the others continues. For the New Zealand Opera production of La boheme, director Jacqueline Coats has tried to breathe new life into the classic.

The director says she always approaches an opera through the music but this time did something different as well.

"I did a lot of work on the libretto," says Coats. "I worked with an Italian coach, not just on understanding the words, but a lot of work on the structure and how the poetry plays in the piece, which I hadn't had a sense of before. The artists in the opera all speak in poetry to each other and use it to play with each other; it's part of the way they are. That's played against very practical moments, like when they're ordering food."

The other key to making it new is to find a central theme and focus on it.

"My starting point for it was this idea about how the world looks different and you see it differently when you fall in or out of love. That's come out of Rodolfo singing in act one about these unattainable dreams that you can't hold on to. Mimi almost introduces the real world to him. By meeting her, his world changes."

Singers, too, face the challenge of not letting an opera get stale. Nicholas Lester plays Marcello — whose real-life model was the artist François Germain Leopold Tabar. He tries to bring something different to the piece each time he does it and says a good director helps.

"This time they've been ideas I'd never thought of," says Lester. "The danger is you might go 'oh same old, same old', but with different people in the room, if something doesn't suit someone you can make adjustments. There have been musical things I've been picked up on this time that no one's picked up before, and others it's hard to get out of the habit of. But I know how, say, a big phrase in act two needs to be sung for my benefit."

Lester's a serious student — "It's been quite a few years since I read the [original] play but I have a couple of times" — and says it provides useful context for the current version.

"Puccini had to compress and pick and choose stories, and put more emphasis on one character or another. My recollection of it is that Musetta [a singer] takes a much more prominent place in that story but she's not as present in this version."

But reading, listening and knowing the sources aren't enough. A good opera singer has to be a serious actor, which Lester clearly is.

"My character is potentially two dimensional," he says. "He's happy for brief moments or a bit upset about him and Musetta or his art not working. The challenge for me is to find the light and shade, because there's plenty of dark and miserable and you need to find the moments of joy."

You can take his word for it. He's been in "eight or nine" productions of the opera. Before coming here, he had not long finished an appearance in another Boheme, and after New Zealand will head to the English National Opera where he will appear in … La boheme.

TIMELINE
1845 First newspaper appearance of Henry Murger's Bohemians
1849 Bohemian Life, Musical play with Theodore Barriere
1851 Collected stories published as Scenes of Bohemian Life 1851
1861 Death of Murger
1896 La boheme
Lowdown:
What: NZ Opera — La Boheme
Where & when: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre; Thursday, September 13, Saturday, September 15, Wednesday, September 19, Friday, September 21 and Sunday, September 23