Going to the Opera to Learn About Tuberculosis

Last month, on March 24, it was “World Tuberculosis Day” and it likely came and went without notice. Though tuberculosis is something that often doesn’t make headlines much, it is #1 infectious disease killer of humans. It killed 1.3 million people in 2017—more than flu, HIV, malaria, and measles. It has infected about one-quarter of the world’s population. Though the US tuberculosis burden has fallen to record lows (9105 cases in 2017), it nonetheless remains an important public health threat.


A disease that leaves such a mark on humanity is bound to leave its mark on culture as well. Probably one of the most famous cultural monuments to tuberculosis is the Puccini opera La Boheme, which I finally was able to see earlier this month. To modern audiences, La Boheme is probably more noted for being the inspiration behind Jonathan Larsen’s Rent rather than in its own right.

I am not an opera aficionado by any standard and don’t really know how to evaluate operas, but I am an infectious disease nerd and that’s why I wanted to see La Boheme. La Boheme, just like Rent, is centered around a group of artistic, financially challenged friends one of whom has an advanced case of tuberculosis (Mimi). The plot revolves around the friends daily trials with romance, career, and (not surprisingly) rent.

La Boheme was written in 1896 nearly half a century before streptomycin — the first anti-tuberculosis antibiotic was discovered — and about three decades before the BCG vaccine was developed. At that time, tuberculosis was incurable so it is not surprising how La Boheme ends. Interestingly, during that era, TB was thought by many to be an inspiration to the artist as well as a manifestation of beauty (this was part of the “illness as metaphor” work of Susan Sontag). Today, I don’t think that impression persists as tuberculosis patients are often stigmatized for various reasons and no one is claiming tuberculosis is “romantic.”

Seeing infectious diseases portrayed in great works of art importantly concretizes how impactful they can be and for that reason, I thought La Boheme is an important part of understanding the cascading effects of infectious diseases that spread much farther and deeper than many other medical conditions.