When the curtain rises on Houston Grand Opera’s La bohème, audiences should spot a familiar face. Nicole Heaston, the soprano who sings Mimi, one of the opera’s romantic leads, is an alumna of HGO's renowned studio program.
"I can remember being in the Studio and covering for singers, learning their roles," she says, "and now the Studio artists are covering me. It’s really special to see that. I think of it as a transition in life.”
Heaston has been singing professionally for nearly two decades. In that time, she’s preformed in opera houses around the globe and earned praised for her ringing voice and masterful technique. The New York Times recently called out her “radiant voice” in her performance of Handel’s Alcina at the Norwegian National Opera (a role she’s sung across the world, including at HGO) and the Boston Globe called her “stunning” in her performance of Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at Boston Lyric.
She’s sung some of opera’s most well-known soprano roles, and she’s performed as Musetta in La bohème. But this is her debut as Mimi.
Puccini’s La bohème is one of the repertoire’s most beloved shows. It’s the story of a group of poverty-stricken artists living in Paris in the 1830s, falling in love and looking to find their place in the world. Woven into the opera are two love stories, the tumultuous one between the headstrong Musetta and the painter Marcello (played at HGO by Heaston’s fellow former Studio alumni soprano Pureum Jo and baritone Michael Sumuel). But at its core, Boheme is the love story between the writer Rodolfo (tenor Ivan Magrí, in his HGO debut) and the flower embroiderer Mimi. From the minute they meet in Rodolfo’s garret, these two are immediately, wildly, impossibly in love.
“I’ve been thinking all through the rehearsal period and staging how different Musetta and Mimi are to sing,”Heaston says. “Mimi is so flamboyant, and Puccini gives her this bombastic music. Mimi is a much more lyrical role; she’s really the emotional center of the opera.”
Heaston says when she was first cast, she felt a little bit of pressure. After all, Mimi has been sung by some of the greatest sopranos in opera (think Maris Calas and Montserrat Caballé). But then she flipped her own script and realized she could bring something “specifically Nicole” to it.
This bohème is directed by John Caird, who’s reviving the production that played at HGO in 2012. It was a stunning production then—all rich, deeply colored sets, and lush lighting, and Caird gave a deft and loving hand to the entire company on stage.
“John is a really detailed director,” says Heaston. “And Puccini is such a master in this opera. He gives everyone a different motif, giving the audience great musical cues. I think this is part of why it resonates so well. La bohème touches your soul."