By Tamara Vallejos
One of the most colorful roles in Opera Colorado’s production of La Bohème belongs to soprano Monica Yunus, who portrays the flirty and capricious Musetta. Today we check in with Yunus and learn about her early beginnings in opera, what she thinks happens to Musetta once the curtain goes down at the end of La Bohème, and how she spends her free time working on New York City’s largest public art initiative.
Let’s start at the very beginning! How did you discover your love for opera?
I was a kid that loved to sing all the time. I sang along with every song that came on the radio, much to the chagrin of my neighbors. But my mom thought I had a good voice, so she wanted to get me lessons and I started studying with a retired opera singer who had been the protégé of the great Rosa Ponselle. I began fairly early on, at eleven years old. Then I auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus and that’s where I really started with my love of opera.
What an exciting way to begin! How long were you with the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus?
I did that for a couple of years. Since I started at eleven, I got too tall. In my case, that meant being five-foot-two, which I think is hilarious, but they really want kids to look very small. So I only did that for two seasons, but the bug stayed with me.
And now let’s fast-forward to your time with Opera Colorado. You’ve been with us a few times before, haven’t you?
Yes! One night, I stepped off the stage at the Met after a show and I got a call from my agent saying, “Can you be on a plane to go to Colorado to cover Gilda in a production of Rigoletto?” So I was talking to Opera Colorado General Director Greg Carpenter in the middle of the night, then on a flight at 6 am to be able to cover that same night. I didn’t end up going on, but I worked with the conductor that day and I was literally waiting in the wings. And a couple years ago, I came back to do the big gala celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Now here I am for La Bohème.
Do you have a lengthy background with La Bohème, the way so many of your cast-mates do?
This is actually only my second production of La Bohème! And my Marcello in this production was my Marcello in the other production, so I’ve done this same role before with Levi Hernandez.
Although, I’ve also done La Bohème in scenes and various concerts and things like that. And I learned the children’s music when I was in the children’s chorus at the Met, but I never actually ended up performing it. So every time I hear the children’s chorus for La Bohème, it always reminds me of being a kid at the Met.
Can you pick out a favorite part in La Bohème?
I think Act IV is so tragic because you’ve seen these people be in love, fight and live. Then you watch somebody so young die, excruciatingly slow, in front of her love… That always gets me. I don’t think there has been a single time I’ve seen it when I didn’t cry. It’s just so heartbreaking.
Even when you’re on stage and not just an audience member?
I get choked up, absolutely. Yes, yes, yes.
Even though they have only been friends for a relatively short amount of time, Musetta shows deep affection for Mimi in Act IV. These are two very different women, yet they’ve clearly become very fond of each other.
I think it’s the same way in real life. You have friendships with people who are completely different that you. It’s probably what immediately attracts you to each other, just like in romantic relationships. I think that Musetta has a genuine like of Mimi. Mimi is very kind to Musetta, which I think a lot of women are not. And Musetta is genuinely concerned and seeking Mimi out in Act IV to see if she’s okay. She had heard rumors, and she could have very easily left it alone, knowing reaching out to Mimi would lead Musetta back to Marcello. And maybe she didn’t want to be led back to Marcello. But she has a genuine caring for Mimi and that’s what really brings her back to the group.
What do you think happens to Musetta after the curtain goes down, and after she’s seen this tragic thing happen to her friend?
We were just talking about this in rehearsal. We thought that Musetta should have an opera, too! A sequel for Musetta. We wanted to know what happened to her. Does she get back together with Marcello? How are they affected by Mimi’s death? I think those are interesting topics to explore. I think Musetta and Marcello would try to make a go of it. Maybe they’d have a child. But they’d probably just split up again because they’re both so independent.
Speaking of rehearsal, what’s been your favorite part of the process?
I think it’s just seeing where your character—who you’ve maybe done before—will be with a different set of people around you. Because everyone brings something different to their role, and having that mesh together is always interesting. This cast for La Bohème is such a great group. There’s no drama. I know sometimes people like to hear about the drama, so I could lie and say there is a ton, but…
Finally, tell us a little about Sing for Hope, the non-profit organization you co-founded.
My dear friend from Julliard and I started it eleven years ago, and the signature piece of it is the Sing for Hope pianos, where we take pianos and get artists to paint them. The pianos are out in public parks and spaces in New York City for three weeks, and then they are donated to schools. We now have a staff of nine and over 1500 artists—not just visual artists, but singers, dancers, musicians of all kinds—who also volunteer their time at schools, hospitals, veteran groups, eldercare facilities, etc.