Last month, I saw Puccini's La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. As usual, the Franco Zeffirelli production was lavish, with magnificent sets and a hundred extras in the Parisian streets scene, including horses and donkeys on stage. Whoa. That's what makes the Met a unique place for Opera—not to mention the world class orchestra and singers. (And it makes me yearn for the Zeffirelli Tosca, unhappily replaced by an inferior creation.)
La Bohème is surely not Puccini's best opera (that would be Tosca): The action, true to the original Henri Murger book that inspired it, is but a series of loosely connected tragic and farcical scenes, and the opera only features two really good songs. But those two songs are so good, they are in the all-time opera hit-parade: Mi chiamano Mimì, which Anita Hartig sang touchingly, fully incarnating Mimi; and Musetta's Waltz, which was competently performed by Jennifer Rowley, though she failed to be the vamp. It's telling, though, that despite the story mostly revolving around the four main male protagonists, the two songs that standout are the female arias. And so, Vittorio Grigolo may have been a great Rodolfo, and the other singers may have been good, but somehow their songs didn't really touch me, and the fault lies with Puccini: Frankly, in contrast to those two fantastic arias, the rest of the opera is just filler.
The four male protagonists are living together la vie de Bohème, which consists mainly of artistic failures and accompanying poverty, with fleeting moments of being in the money thanks to some moderate success—which itself, it seems, consists mainly in separating some rich mark from his dollar, in a Carnie spirit that was better described by Robert Heinlein or Fredric Brown. There is pride indeed in being a successful artist, even when it involves being something of a con artist—competence in anything is worthy of respect. Importantly, the enmity between predator and prey does not in itself imply disrespect for the prey—far from it. The landlord, nobleman or politician, had his own talent for acquiring (honestly or dishonestly) the capital off of which the artists live, and that makes him worth defrauding. While the protagonists of La Bohème may celebrate success, they certainly don't claim the moral high ground over their victims (though they would be entitled to it, in the cases of the politician and the nobleman, if not necessarily in that of the landlord), in that they are much more honest than their disgusting, loathsome 1994 copycats of Rent who have the incredible gall to blame society for their self-inflicted wounds.
No, these artists may live in poverty, but they know it's the price they have to pay for their freedom: the freedom* to be themselves, and to create what they love, whether the public likes it or not. And that's something respectable, even though it leads to the death of Mimi due to lack of funds to pay a doctor. For whatever their spectacular but overly late readiness to pawn their last belongings to bring relief to a dying Mimi, we must not forget that these men, starting with the in-and-out lover Rodolfo, purposefully failed to do what could actually have afforded Mimi sufficient health care to survive: getting a stable job. If Rodolfo actually valued Mimi's life as much as he claimed, he would have put his literary career aside and taken a job that pays well, despite the drudgery and the humiliation, as a secretary, clerk, accountant, journalist, ghostwriter, teacher, public writer, anything that would have earned enough to pay for her medical treatment.
Instead of complaining about the deadly cold wind blowing in the apartment through holes in the walls, he might also have filled them, be it with papers and rags. Or moved with her to the South of France. But he chose not to do any of that. And who am I to dispute his moral preferences? Maybe she wouldn't have loved him anymore if he had denied his way of life and stooped to earning a salary; and then she might indeed have left him for a richer lover, as he was both jealously dreading yet desiring for the sake of her health. I will not cast a stone—but I will point out this is the moral choice that was made, this is the preference that was revealed. And I admit to seeing nobility in that choice, not because it was a matter of man against society (it was not), but because it was a matter of a man choosing to be true to his own values—above health and wealth, above honor, and above love itself.
La Bohème: an opera that celebrates freedom over love. And not by the word—but by the deed. Yay.
*Note that the informal freedom that these artists achieve is different from the formal freedom claimed by libertarians, though it is related. In both cases, this freedom consists in not being harmed, threatened or defrauded because you're living your life and using your property in ways that other people disapprove, especially powerful people or large mobs. But libertarians seek to have this freedom formally acknowledged as a mutual agreement that drives the institutional use of force—or, mostly, the lack thereof. Instead, these artists neither seek nor grant this mutual acknowledgement.
While they reject the constraints of society's prevailing social mores, they are content to live their asocial life under the radar; and while their ultimate ambition is to succeed at touching a large public with their art, they are not above denying the victims of their petty scams the right not to be defrauded. One could argue that their political victims, by their criminal profession, have forfeited this right; and that the landlord voluntarily accepts the deferral of rent payment and decides not to evict them. Thus, one might argue that their lifestyle does not violate libertarian principles. Still, the two concepts of freedom are in distinct categories. One is a practical freedom in the category of facts; the other one is a theoretical freedom in the category of laws, that consists in mutually acknowledging the former freedom.
* François-René Rideau is a French cybernetician now living in the US. He owns Bastiat.org and Liberty, as it is and writes on Cybernethics.