Less than two years ago, Lisa Hopkins ’01 was graduating from Yale with a degree in theater studies. Now, she is living out her wildest dreams as the leading lady in one of Broadway’s biggest shows of the year, Baz Luhrmann’s production of “La Boheme.”
In his controversial but critically acclaimed production, Luhrmann — director of the films “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo and Juliet” — has set the opera in 1950s Paris. In his hopes to find young singers who could also give passionate performances, Luhrmann scoured the globe in an international search for the perfect cast.
Hopkins shares the lead role, Mimi, with two other actresses, who rotate in the role to avoid vocal strain.
For Hopkins, the road to Broadway has been filled with lucky breaks and hard work. Her parents — who live in Salt Lake City and are devout Mormons — home-schooled Lisa until the age of 9. Hopkins said that it was her mother, a Juilliard-trained pianist, who first instilled in her the drive to succeed.
“Any form of vision that I would have conceived of, my mother basically taught me how to attack it and get it,” Hopkins said.
So when Hopkins first discovered her talent for singing at her brother’s Eagle Scout program, her mother immediately set up an audition with the best-known voice teacher in Salt Lake City.
Hopkins arrived at Yale already dreaming of a career in opera. Everything she studied at Yale was designed to make her a better opera performer. She studied languages to perfect her diction, literature to analyze librettos, and even found a way to relate a Group IV requirement to opera — by writing a paper about Philip Glass’ opera “Einstein on the Beach.”
Junior year, Hopkins decided to major in theater studies. And while most theater studies alumni may be starving artists crying over their degrees — and ruing the day they gave up political science — Hopkins insists that her experience in the major was directly responsible for her big break.
Hopkins recalled her final project for Deb Margolin’s “Introduction to Performance Concepts” seminar — an original solo performance piece in which she dressed up as Catwoman, complete with fishnet tights, a black leotard and an imitation black leather jacket from the Chapel Square Mall, which she bought for $2.
“My whole show was about pure love of Christ, and I can’t even remember how Catwoman plays into this whole thing, but it did,” she said.
In fact, it was that same leather jacket that Hopkins believes made her stand out in an audition for “Boheme.” She knew that she had to look “funky” in order to fit into Luhrmann’s pop-inspired vision for the show.
While pursuing theater studies at Yale, Hopkins’ ambitions in opera were in full steam. Her mother, hoping to find her daughter the best voice teacher there was, boldly telephoned the secretary of famed soprano Beverly Sills, hoping she could recommend a good teacher.
“Certainly Pavarotti studies with somebody, was her idea,” laughed Hopkins.
Her mother eventually got the home number of Marlena Malas, who Hopkins said was “the legendary voice teacher of the century.” By a stroke of luck, she got through to Malas’ husband and “hit it off.” Lisa had gotten an appointment to sing for Malas.
For the audition, she needed a French aria to add to her repertoire. Hopkins had never spoken a word of French, but it just so happened that a student from Paris lived right beneath her in Saybrook — and Hopkins had found her very own diction coach.
But the audition for Malas was still a nerve-wracking prospect. When Hopkins showed up at her door, a small woman in a pink jumpsuit appeared and snapped, “What do you want?”
Hopkins answered, “I want a legendary voice and I want you to take me seriously.” She listed all the world-famous opera houses where she someday hoped to sing, including the Met, the Covent Gardens, and La Scala.
To which Malas replied: “Well my dear, that’s very bold. Let’s hear you sing.”
As soon as Hopkins finished her first piece, she said Malas jumped up and said, “Well, you have a lot of bad habits, but your mother was exactly right. You will sing at all those places.”
With that, Hopkins had found a new voice teacher and was admitted into Malas’ training program in upstate New York. She was cast in “Threepenny Opera,” and after the closing night, Hopkins remembers Malas pulling her aside and saying, “Dear, you have everything it takes to make it in this business.”
Hopkins then returned to her junior year at Yale, with a renewed drive and passion for opera. She and a friend decided to found the Yale College Opera Company, which is still very much active five years later.
But just as her ambitions for her career seemed to be at their clearest, Hopkins was faced with one of the hardest decisions of her life.
Hopkins, who describes herself as “a very active member” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was 21, which is the traditional age for missionary work. It is also a crucial age for a singer’s development. Hopkins realized that going on a mission would be a tremendous sacrifice, but in the end she decided that she wanted to follow her faith.
She signed up to go on a mission, not knowing where in the world she would end up for the next year and a half. By a phenomenal coincidence, Hopkins was assigned to go to Vienna, Austria — the music capital of the world. There, she met musicians from all over the world and performed in 21 multimedia concerts, which were put on as part of her missionary work.
“I learned that my voice was not the priority but the vehicle that would propel whatever life mission I had,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be involved in large, multimedia, cross-genre sorts of things.”
But it was not until she returned from Austria for her senior year at Yale that Hopkins learned that Baz Luhrmann, the master of crossing genres and mixing media, was holding auditions for a Broadway production of “La Boheme.”
The opera, written by Giacomo Puccini in 1896, has become one of the most beloved operas of all time. But Luhrmann — who had directed a version of the opera in his native Australia — wanted to popularize it even more by bringing it out of the opera house and onto the Broadway stage.
At first, Hopkins auditioned for the part of Musetta, the flamboyant courtesan who is often played as a redhead, just like Hopkins. She gave what she now considers “a terrible audition” and didn’t hear back from anyone for six months.
Hopkins was cramming in credits so that she could graduate, including a one-woman opera that she performed as her senior project for theater studies. Meanwhile, she had nearly forgotten about “La Boheme” — until she got a call asking her to come back and audition as Mimi. Hopkins embarked on a months-long process of callbacks, until finally she got to audition for Luhrmann himself. Hopkins describes him as a man of “subdued insanity,” with “a fire behind his eyes.”
Looking back, Hopkins said she had confidence that she had nailed it.
“It was very clear that he was going to hire me. The atmosphere was one of just yes, yes, yes,” she said.
Her first audition opposite Jesus Garcia, who now plays Rodolfo, convinced her she would get the lead role, Mimi.
“He and I clicked the instant we saw each other,” she said. As soon as the two both hit the high C at the end of their love duet, Hopkins said, “There was just this ‘wow’ moment in the audition room.”
But it would take one extra push to get the role. Hopkins was offered the understudy and promptly refused it. “I told them I was interested in being in the production — I was on a big honesty kick.”
With that, Hopkins landed the part of the third Mimi. She soon found herself shooting a commercial for the show directed by Luhrmann himself.
“Suddenly I was being launched into the world of
Hollywood,” she said. “I hadn’t even dreamt this in Deb’s class!”
Hopkins realized that she was part of a production that would, for better or worse, change the history of opera forever, she said.
“It was this revolutionary melding of opera, Hollywood and Broadway, in a way that had never been done before,” Hopkins said.
After just over a month of rehearsal, the show opened in San Francisco to rave reviews, and then in November, it opened in the Broadway Theater.
Unlike most opera directors, Luhrmann stressed the importance of acting over singing. He did not even allow the actors to sing a note before they had become comfortable speaking their lines, first in English and then in the original Italian.
“He wouldn’t let us go on until he believed that we owned the words that we were actually singing,” she said.
Now, Hopkins performs as Mimi every Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon. At the same time, she is enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music, where she hopes to get her master’s degree next winter. She expects to be performing in “La Boheme” for another year and a half.
With a train of remarkable successes behind her, and her ambitions still as strong as ever, Hopkins said that her life will be forever changed by Baz Luhrmann and “La Boheme.”
“The air is just pregnant with this creative potential that we all need to carry on in the name of Baz, and in the name of opera, and in the name of Boheme,” she said.