Roy Cornelius Smith knows all about the starving artist syndrome -- he has lived it.
The tenor's opera career started with promise. Fresh out of college, he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. "I went straight from school to ... school," he said.
Then came graduation.
"That's where my bohemian life started," he said. "Working from job to job and not having enough money for rent, not enough money for car insurance or gas. I had no idea where my next meal was going to come from. I remember when my mom and dad would come and visit, they'd bring boxes of groceries."
At one point he was a gourmet caramel apple salesman. "Twenty bucks for one apple the size of a softball, dipped in caramel, covered in chocolate, then covered in nuts. And of course you had to try them -- for lunch, for dinner," he recalled.
So it's easy for Mr. Smith to relate to his role as Rudolpho the bohemian poet in the Augusta Opera's production of La Boheme, opening Wednesday at the Imperial Theatre. "This is my favorite role to sing. It's who I was," he said.
Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme is "a bittersweet yet comic musical portrayal of poverty-stricken young artists, struggling to live, laugh, love and create important works in the Latin Quarter of mid-19th century Paris," as described by Dorothy Samachson in The Lyric Opera Companion.
Living the bohemian life is no prerequisite for relating to La Boheme, according to David Gately, the stage director.
"You can relate to the characters without relating to the circumstances," he said. "They are all artists trying to scrape together money, trying to find a way to live in the big city. You don't necessarily have to have the exact circumstances to really relate to who these characters are."
The opera's story of loss, involving the death of lead female character Mimi (played by Elena Kolganova), is universal.
"You don't have to have a girlfriend or boyfriend who has died to identify with this opera. It could be a mother or grandmother or anyone," said Mr. Smith.
Growing up in Tashkent, capital of the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, Ms. Kolganova's bohemian experiences don't quite match Mr. Smith's. She lived with her parents while attending Tashkent's college and conservatory for music and moved the United States, got married and began her opera career.
"I never experienced bohemian life. I never had the chance to live by myself, alone," she said.
But the poignancy of La Boheme, which inspired the hit Broadway musical Rent, is not lost on her.
It's basically a Romeo and Juliet-style love story. Rudolpho and Mimi fall madly in love, but the relationship is doomed as she succumbs to disease.
"It's a real tug at your heartstrings type of thing," said Mr. Gately.
Story aside, the music of La Boheme speaks to its enduring popularity.
"The music is beautiful," said Mr. Smith.
"The music is very approachable," said Mr. Gately.
Augusta Opera's interpretation of La Boheme will be done along traditional lines, sung in Italian, with English super-titles projected above the stage.
"There's a lot of stuff in La Boheme that ties it to its time frame. I think the approach we're taking into it is new and fresh even though we do it totally and completely within period," said Mr. Gately.
Hopefully, he said, audiences will notice an attempt to keep the production realistic, in contrast to a tendency toward grandiose, over-dramatic operatic interpretations.
"Nobody's going to be planting their feet, spreading their arms and singing high notes," said Mr. Gately.
"Less is more," chimed in Mr. Smith.
What: Augusta Opera's La Boheme
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Imperial Theatre, 745 Broad St.
How much: $5-$40