NEW YORK – Baz Luhrmann is upfront about the challenge: "Bringing Italian opera to Broadway is not the easiest way to have a hit," he says with a laugh.
"I'm used to it. Everything I've ever made has been an enormous risk — with people saying, 'Are you crazy?' I'm not that heroic or brave. But there are things that for very personal and vivid reasons I want to go and do."
The 40-year-old Australian director already has made a name for himself with such films as the high-energy Strictly Ballroom, a punkish, pop-flavored William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and the even more wildly extravagant Moulin Rouge.
Now, he's coming to New York with a $6.5 million, populist production of La Boheme, plunked down in 1950s Paris, sung in the original Italian (with English surtitles) and starring a cast of youthful, sexy singers who could surprise both opera purists and Broadway show folk.
"La Boheme really was the television of its time — it plays to the child and to the adult," the director states emphatically. "And if you are looking to play to everyone, you are not going to find them in a state theater or an opera house, you are going to find them on Broadway."
Opera has had an odd, fitful history on Broadway.
Disney's pop version of Aida, with a score by Elton John and Tim Rice, has been a considerable hit, still running after more than two years. But then, there was My Darlin' Aida (1952), which time-traveled Verdi's melodies to the Confederacy of the Civil War. It lasted three months.
Contemporary opera composers have had mixed success. Gian Carlo Menotti scored with two productions — a double bill of The Telephone and The Medium (1947) which ran for over 200 performances and The Consul, (1950) which lasted for eight months and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle prize for best musical of the season.
Kurt Weill's Street Scene (1947) and Marc Blitzstein's Regina, based on The Little Foxes, both flopped on Broadway, but later had runs in opera houses around the world.
Producers hope La Boheme will do better. Advance ticket sales are strong, although the producers declined to reveal exact figures. They started to climb after the theater's box office opened in October and after television stations in the New York area began showing a very stylized, 30-second commercial directed by Luhrmann, his first.
Luhrmann sits in the minimalist penthouse of a midtown Manhattan hotel, whose spartan decor can only be described as mausoleum chic. Lighted votive candles on the floor next to a fireplace give a vaguely monastic feel to the room.
The boyish director, sporting unruly blond hair, supplies his own ebullience. Dressed in the ubiquitous black — black pants, black jacket and black shoes — plus a formal white shirt and the required white T-shirt peeking through, he radiates a confidence that is disarming.
But then, a conversation with Luhrmann does not suffer from silences. Ask a question and he's off and running, sometimes in several directions at once. In a flash, you understand and appreciate where all the exuberant excesses of Moulin Rouge came from.
The director has been obsessed with La Boheme for a long time. He staged it in Australia at the Sydney Opera House in 1990. It was that version producers Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum saw on American public television when they were working on another version of Puccini's opera, a little something called Rent.
"They used it as an example of how Rent should be," Luhrmann said.
"I agreed that we should revisit La Boheme and deal with the issue that we began with years ago, which is, addressing this work as if it were being done for the first time."
So far, the results have been encouraging. The production was rapturously received during its fall tryout in San Francisco by both critics and audiences. It quickly sold out, and Luhrmann was pleased by the people he reached. Some two-thirds were nonoperagoers.
"There was no demographic," he said. "One of the beautiful things happening was fathers taking their kids and telling them the story. But then, there were groovy, young 18-year-olds, people on date nights, and lots of old ladies, in the audience, too."
But that hasn't stopped the perfectionist Luhrmann from fine-tuning the show, which has settings designed by his wife, Catherine Martin, a woman he refers to affectionately in conversation as C.M.
So he's spending much of his time here at the Broadway Theatre, where La Boheme begins preview performances Nov. 29, in preparation for an opening on Dec. 8.
It took him two years to find the right cast for Puccini's tale of starving artists and doomed romance in late 19th-century Paris. Luhrmann's staff auditioned more than 2,000 singers in London, New York and Milan, Italy.
"I worked with 200 singers myself," he says, before settling on the three sets of Mimis and Rodolfos who star in the production. "It nearly wiped me out.
"These are not big-voiced, mature performers, but I did have three requirements: one, that they could sing it; two, that they could act it; and three, that they looked like the characters.
"And what I did do, because I didn't want them to have a generic look, was make sure they didn't look alike. For example, one Rodolfo is 6-foot-tall and blond, classically romantic; another is very James Dean-like and energetic. They give quite different interpretations. They deliver the same promise but with a different nuance."
And in San Francisco, Luhrmann said, the production received exactly the same enthusiastic reception, no matter who performed.
What will opera purists think, especially since the size of the orchestra has been reduced to accommodate Broadway's stringent economics? Luhrmann is unfazed.
"It is a smaller orchestra," he said, "but Puccini did reductions anyway to go on tour. "We haven't cut a single note. The music director is conducting the score more like Toscanini did with the original. Toscanini and Puccini were all about the rhythm of real life.
"What makes great theater doesn't necessarily make a great recording. As records became more about the voices — and consequently slower — every note was made beautiful, as opposed to a piece of theater. By going back to that, we've made the piece more rambunctious, more alive. People can't believe how quickly it goes by."
Luhrmann projects an evangelistic spirit as he warms to talking about how he works.
"At first, these things are my personal gesture," he says. But then, he talks and talks and talks things out with his wife "because she is my soul mate. Finally, though, I have to make the decision because I am the captain."
After La Boheme opens, Luhrmann plans to take some time off before plunging ahead next year with a new project — his film about Alexander the Great, a movie he has been planning for a decade. Plus there are stage versions of both Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge in the works. But don't look for them any time soon. "I don't rush things."
With homes in Sydney and New York and his own production company, Bazmark, Inc., Luhrmann doesn't need to worry about money and has confidently turned down a lot of projects.
"I'm not exactly like Disney, more like the Diaghilev Ballet," he said with a laugh. "There are things that I would like to do, but ultimately I end up doing the things I need to do artistically."