Elaine Alvarez usually begins killing off Mimi when she walks on stage.

A little cough evolves into a wheeze. Then, around the end of Act 3 of Puccini's enduring and endearing "La Boheme," Alvarez's Mimi is a convincing picture of death, pale and placid, just waiting to succumb.

But Alvarez, a Miami soprano making her Arizona Opera debut in this weekend's run of "La Boheme," is having to rethink the role under German director Guy Montavon. The director, taking a more conceptual approach to the classic story of starving artists, doesn't want the fatally ill neighbor of Rodolfo and his band of Bohemians to appear sickly, even though the audience knows she's dying.

"So it's been a little difficult in that respect. … When your director wants you to have more of an air of hope, you have to reinterpret how you convey the illness," said Alvarez, a first-generation Cuban-American who at 29 is fast gaining a reputation for Mimi. She has done the role at least twice a season since her first professional season in 2006-07.

"I love, love, love her. I love the opera," she gushed in a phone interview from Phoenix, where "La Boheme" played to sold-out houses in three performances last weekend. "This and (Verdi's) 'La Traviata' are my favorite operas and my favorite roles."

Fellow soprano Rhoslyn Jones plays opposite Alvarez in the role of Musetta, a character not nearly as sympathetic as Mimi. In fact, Musetta is in many ways the opposite of Mimi - outgoing, brash, not afraid to be the center of attention.

"She has to be a contrast to Mimi in every way. She needs to be opposite - loud and boisterous, jealous, passionate. Every extreme of every emotion," said Jones, 29, who returns to Arizona Opera after playing the lead in "Susannah" in 2007. "I think she's the big personality. She's the life of the party. I'm not saying I'm that but I can fake that."

Jones has sung Musetta several times in her fledgling career - she and Alvarez got their starts about the same time - and has become comfortable in the role.

But in the 2011 season, she will get out of her comfort zone when she makes her role debut as Mimi in the Pacific Opera (Victoria, British Columbia) production of "La Boheme."

To prepare, she's been taking mental notes of the Mimis she's shared the stage with, learning their nuances to the role, how they pace themselves.

Mainly, she watches how they die.

"You can't fall over and die," she said with a chuckle. "You see how she is much more sick in Act 3 than Act 2. The singing gets more difficult."

Jones said it is roles like Mimi and Musetta that will shape her career. As for roles that will define her, "I haven't sung those yet," she said.

"But I know what they are," she added, saying the list includes Mozart's classic ladies like Donna Anna ("Don Giovanni") and Richard Strauss roles including the title role in "Arabella." "I'm a little bit on the young side to do the roles I want to do."

Alvarez has not quite figured out her defining roles. But she's thrilled with the pace of her career so far.

"My dream is to continue professionally and sing in the best theaters in the world with the best conductors," she said, as her canine travel companion, Lola the Wonder Pooch, yapped in the background.

"I want to have a full, healthy singing career. The Met is my dream venue. But I'm living my dream. Every season I get to sing in new places all over the world."

Later this year she will spend two months touring with a production of "The Marriage of Figaro" in Japan, Paris and the U.S.

If you go

Puccini's "La Boheme."

• Presented by: Arizona Opera.

• Sung in: Italian with English supertitles.

• Conducted by: Joel Revzen.

• Directed by: Guy Montavon.

• Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

•When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.

• Tickets: $16-$100 through www.ticketmaster.com; 293-4336. Saturday sold out.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at 573-4642 or cburch@azstarnet.com