Stars of Cincinnati Opera's 'La Boheme' have their own Queen City love stories to tell

Puccini classic runs June 15-24

CINCINNATI -- Tragic love starts the season at Cincinnati Opera with the timeless romance of "La Boheme," running June 15 through 24.

But happier love stories mean two of the singers of "La Boheme" will return to Cincinnati homes -- not hotel rooms -- after each performance.

Baritone Rodion Pogossov (Photo provided by Daniil Rabovsky)

Baritone Rodion Pogossov and soprano Jessica Rivera, who play the lovers Marcello and Musetta, each fell in love with a Queen City resident in real life.

"This is the first time in my life that you sleep in your own house, then take a car and go to rehearsal," said Pogossov. "It feels like home."

Pogossov was born in Moscow but left Russia at 19 to work with a young artists program with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Five years ago, on a flight from Moscow to New York, Pogossov made eye contact with a woman -- and then, because of a broken seatbelt, found himself sitting next to her. She was headed to Cincinnati, with only a layover in New York City.

They talked the whole flight, and as they were getting off the plane, Pogossov said, "If we end up getting married, this will be a great story."

Pogossov and the woman were married a year later. He and his wife, Vlata, still live in Cincinnati, where he is charmed by the deer and rabbits who visit his backyard. "La Boheme" will be his Cincinnati Opera debut.

Soprano Jessica Rivera (Photo provided by Shawn Flint Blair)

Rivera last performed with Cincinnati Opera six years ago. The California-born singer had just started a home renovation in her hometown when she arrived -- June 1, 2011 -- in Cincinnati to start rehearsals for "A Flowering Tree."

A week later, she met the man who would become her husband, Barry Shafer.

Shafer, at the time, had recently lost his wife. A mutual friend, one who also had lost a spouse and was worried about Shafer, asked Rivera to meet with him while she was in town.

"She said, 'This is not a set-up. I just think you'd have some things in common, and you can get him out of the house,' " Rivera said. "We went to dinner in Mariemont, and that turned into dessert at Graeter's, which turned into coffee at Starbucks. We just kept talking."

Within two weeks, Rivera said she knew she had "something" with Shafer. Within a month, Shafer said he knew what that "something" was -- they were in love. Three months and two days after they met, they were married on Shafer's 50th birthday.

In 2014, Rivera was supposed to perform with Cincinnati Opera in "Carmen." "But instead," she said, "my production that summer was having a baby."

Rivera and Shafer's son, Reade, was followed 13 months later by their daughter, Rachel. Rivera continues to perform about one opera a year and concerts made possible, in part, she said, by the reputation she built performing in contemporary operas here in Cincinnati.

Puccini's "La Boheme" is a beloved classic opera, but this production, co-produced by the English National Opera, moves the penniless, lovestruck artists 100 years through time, into 1930s Paris. The set, designed by Isabella Bywater, is modeled after photographs from the era.

"I went to Paris, and stayed in this fantastic apartment where you could basically use the bathroom while stirring the soup," Bywater said. " ... Everyone in Paris, rich or poor, lived in these small spaces, and I consciously made rooms (for the set) that were small, that were like they really were."

Isabella Bywater consciously designed the sets of "La Boheme" to mimic the small, dingily beautiful spaces of 1930s Paris. (Photo provided by Philip Groshong)

The singers also are following this vision of telling the story as if it were reality. You'll not find arm-waving and "operatic cliches" in this production, Pogossov said, but instead "real people" falling in love amidst glorious music.

"I'm a sucker for a good love story, honestly," Rivera said. "I suppose you could say my art is imitating my life. This is a real story, told with incredibly beautiful music. We just want to let the genius of Puccini come through."

"La Boheme" is sung in Italian with English subtitles. (Watch the trailer here.) The show runs about two hours and 30 minutes. Click here for ticket information.

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