A spectacular evening of stellar performances and good cheer greeted opening night of Opera Santa Barbara’s 2011-12 season of La Bohème at the Granada Theatre.

An early season fall rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of a sold-out crowd eager to enjoy a new season and the recent opening night performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.

The two-night engagement was sung in Italian with English supertitles based on an original production from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis at a running time of two hours and 30 minutes over four acts with orchestra materials provided by the San Francisco Opera Center.

La Bohème is a tender love story about regular everyday people set on Christmas Eve in Paris and is commonly regarded as one of the most well-known and frequently performed operas in the standard repertoire.

“I was very excited to do a piece about people that live on the margin of society which is under celebrated,” said Brad Dalton, stage director for La Bohème. “Everyone who watches the show can see the people living in poverty, but the characters are using their imagination and their life is uncomplicated.”

Dalton, whose recent contemporary work includes A Streetcar Named Desire and Dead Man Walking, was excited to showcase his first involvement with La Bohème, which originally premiered at the Teatro Regio in 1896 in Turin, Italy.

“This story is about when you’re young and you haven’t experienced loss, and as the story unfolds we grieve because we remember that part of ourselves that was idealistic and we tend to change from the pain that we experience,” Dalton said. “Opera is just another form of storytelling, with universal stories about the experiences that we all have in life.”

In the opening arias, Rebecca Davis plays Mimi, a solitary woman and seamstress who locks herself up and knits flowers all day. But by the second act, Mimi starts to experience the stages of love and explores the Latin Quarter of Paris with her lover and poet Rodolfo, played by Chris Bengochea.

Davis said her role as Mimi was inspired by the trials of shyness, awkwardness and heartbreak that she experienced herself in junior high school.

“By the third act Mimi is dealing with Rodolfo’s jealousy and sadly dying,” Davis said. “I find the emotion in my voice by reflecting upon past experiences and draw on those moments of suffering.”

Special guests and donors were delighted to start the new season and were welcomed with a special pre-show opening night gala dinner and a post-show party with a chance to mingle with members of the opera cast in the McCune Founders Room.

The gala dinner Le Menu included delicious pairings of seared tuna nicoise, haircots verts, teardrop tomatoes, nicoise olives garnished with anchovies and vinagrette, also chicken cordon bleu with wild rice and fresh seasonal vegetables and Live Gourmet trio salad bouquets with butter lettuce, radicchio, endive, teardrop tomatoes, blue cheese, candied walnuts and pears tossed with French sherry vinagrette.

Palmina, pouring a 2009 Diva and 2008 Ritornello, generously provided wines for both the pre- and post-events.

After the performance, VIPs and special guests were greeted with a full crepe station, assorted deserts and cheese display provided by Rincon Events and a chance to mingle with La Bohème cast members.

VIP guest Mary Pat Gonzalez, an avid opera fan from Orange County who came to see her daughter-in-law, Adrien Roberts, perform in the La Bohème chorus, said the social stigma of opera as stuffy and conservative has changed over the years.

“People don’t understand how the opera is really wonderful, entertaining and light — it’s not always serious,” Gonzalez said. “I tell the young people don’t be intimated by the opera because it’s a great place to bring a date.”

She acknowledged that the opera can be expensive, but people should consider a matinee or preview night to reduce costs.

Young soprano Jan Cornelius, who played the flashy and flirtatious Musetta in her debut with Opera Santa Barbara and at the Granada, exclaimed how delighted she was to see a mixture of both young and old in the audience.

“In order for young people like me to keep performing, we need young people like me to be in the audience,” Cornelius said. “Opera is more accessible than most young people think it is.”

The extraordinary cast of La Bohème also included Malcolm MacKenzie as Marcello with Dean Williamson conducting a magnificent orchestra and chorus assisted by the Santa Barbara Children’s Chorus.

“Before there was television and movies, opera was the entertainment everyday people went to see for fun, and today’s operas are just as fun but more modernized and easier to follow,” Gonzalez said. “The words are printed up on the stage now so you can understand what is going on — it’s great.”

Opera Santa Barbara wishes to thank its sponsors and supporters without whom these wonderful performances could not occur since ticket sales alone cover only about 30 percent of the costs needed to produce the events.

» Title sponsors: Mosher Foundation and Elaine F. Stepanek Foundation.

» Individual sponsors of La Bohème’s leading roles: Rich and Luci Janssen (Rodolfo), Marlyn Bernstein and Sara Miller McCune (Mimi), Duncan and Suzanne Mellichamp (Marcello and Musetta), Michael and Anne Towbes and The Towbes Foundation (stage director Brad Dalton), Geoffrey and Joan Rutkowski (conductor Dean Williamson), Sarah Jane Lind (Children’s Chorus sponsor), Lilo Norman Urquhart (Musetta’s dog) and Kara Boger (Children’s Chorus soloist).

» Special thanks: Bluestar Parking, Granada Theatre, Louloudi Floral Designs, Michael Mantalos, Palmina Winery, Rincon Events, The Tent Merchant, Jean-Pierre Tibi and Sarah Wilkinson.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at mwalker@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at mwalker@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.