Friday, 25 May 2012

Rethinking "Carmen"

I have loved the opera Carmen since I was a small child, so when I discovered that it was being produced in Edinburgh, I suggested to B.A. that we go together. B.A., however, said something like, "Oh, darling. Bizet. Ugh. Couldn't you go with someone else?"

You know how the food critic in Ratatouille loved food so much he could very rarely eat it? B.A. is like that with music. It is a great testament to his love for me that he actually once went with me to a dance club and sat in a corner in his tweed jacket with a beer and the London Review of Books while I rocked out to The Killers. But, you know, we have been married for three years, so enough is enough, and at some dinner party or other a Young Fogey mentioned Carmen, and B.A. said, in short, "Take my wife, please."

So as a result I went to Carmen with two nice Young Fogeys, and I hope the elderly ladies I was sitting with in the foyer were vastly impressed when they turned up. Swanning around town with younger men is pleasant for its own sake, but your auntie Seraphic is not entirely immune from showing off.

You all know the basic plot of Carmen, yes? In 19th century Seville, a Spanish woman of gypsy heritage works in a cigarette factory by day and smuggles stuff by night. She is famously beautiful, a talented singer and a serial monogamist. She steals the squaddie boyfriend of a NCG, tricks him into deserting the military, and drags him off on a smuggling adventure. Poor Don Jose is not really cut out for smuggling, and Carmen grows impatient and bored. She is greatly tempted to dump him for a famous bullfighter, and jealous Don Jose goes ballistic. It ends badly.

When I was a child, I thought this was the most romantic story in the world after Romeo and Juliet, which also ends badly. I thought, unsurprisingly, that Don Jose was an idiot, but I was very impressed by Carmen herself. Being able to attract male attention and affection seemed to be THE status talent of my schoolyard, and as I was no good at this, I enjoyed both how Carmen had this talent in spades and how she made boys cry. Thanks to the schoolyard, I had a very "Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them" attitude as a child.

It did not strike me until I was much, much, MUCH older and had made boys cry, how very callous this was. Possibly my parents should have sat down with me after watching Carmen on TV and had a little discussion about how boys are human beings with real feelings, just like girls, and it was not very nice of Carmen to act like that, and that they would be disappointed if I acted like her. The real heroine of Carmen, they might have pointed out, was the NCG girlfriend, Micaela, who bravely climbs the mountains in search of Don Jose and tells him to go home to his dying mother.

However, my parents, who were otherwise strict, were not strict about opera, and when I was sixteen or so, I dressed up for high school Hallowe'en as Carmen. I have a photo of this, for various teachers thought I looked wonderful, and one took a picture. And, meanwhile, when my first boyfriend threatened to kill me if he "ever saw me with a another man," I thought this was a perfectly reasonable thing for a boyfriend to say.

"Go ahead," I said. "It will make me famous at school."

First Boyfriend, to his credit, thought this reply was hilarious.

Anyway, fast-forward to my happy middle-age in which, instead of threatening me with death, my husband cheerfully sends me off to the opera with younger men so he can watch telly in peace. I sit between the Young Fogeys and gleefully await the appearance of the Great Heroine. Thus I am shocked and disappointed when the mezzo channels not the Carmen of my memories but La Saranghina, the prostitute in Fellini's Otto e Mezzo (see photo).

Not being an actor or singer myself, I am unsure how I would get across Carmen's exotic attractions, but I am absolutely sure the way to do it is not to roll my eyes wildly, grin toothily and stick my chin out. I might also consider slimming down a bit, if I were built on statuesque lines, although heaven knows countless opulent opera singers have made flab look fab. But there is still a danger, unless one is careful, that one will not look seductive when one looks at Don Jose but like a ravenous drunk about to polish off a box of doughnuts.

As our Carmen leered and lunged about the stage, I began to feel depressed. The sexuality on display did not make me think of danger, magic and romance but of the urban United Kingdom every Friday night. I was reminded of drunken, middle-aged Edinburgh women with perfect hair and raddled faces scarfing down greasy chips before getting on the bus. And I was reminded of tough, big girls in high school who slammed smaller, prettier girls into their lockers. And of Lexi Featherstone in the "Splat!" episode of "Sex and the City" staggering drunkenly around a party before falling out the window.

It didn't help the performance that the narrator kept popping out to remind us how desirable and bewitching men found Carmen as if she distrusted us to suspend our disbelief, and it also didn't help that the blonde soprano playing Micaela was strikingly beautiful and looked as sweet and innocent as... Well, I couldn't even tell you. What painters used to be aiming for when they painted the Madonna, perhaps. I spent the evening waiting for her to come back on stage and was rewarded every time.

And thus I had my revelation. For some time I have been saying that Carmen is a bad role model while secretly thinking she is, however, more fun than Micaela. But thanks to last night's performance, I have been entirely converted to the Gospel of Micaela. Most of last night's performances did not transcend 21st century Scotland, so I saw the whole opera from the perspective of 21st century Scotland.

Carmen is just a Ned with a factory job and criminal ties. She dates and dumps men with such speed and ferocity that her ultimate fate would not have been particularly surprising to the Lothian-Borders police.

Micaela, on the other hand, braves a gang of sexist squaddies, a mountain range, and the entire cast of "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" as a favour to her boyfriend's mother. As I am sure most of us would do in similar circumstances, she prays her heart out to God to keep her safe. She has hung onto her Christian faith and her maidenly virtue at a time when both are extremely uncool. If Don Jose were not such a moron, he would have stuck to Micaela and had a happy life.

That said, men love whom they love, not whom we think they should love, even in the opera. It is thus believable that a Scots squaddie would pick a chip-scarfing Scots slapper over a much prettier Scots girl his mother adores.

I expressed how I now feel about Carmen to the charming Young Fogeys afterwards, and one remarked that the slatternly, promiscuous woman I described was a lot like the original Carmen in the original book. And we all went off for a drink at a joint with a delightfully strict dress code while I inwardly puzzled over who it was that had given me such an early and besotted love for Carmen. Who first had hinted so strongly that Carmen would worthy of emulation? Who was it whom I first heard sing "La Habenera"? The answer eluded me until I awoke to bright sunlight this morning.

It was the singing orange on "Sesame Street".


Christine said...

Ba ha ha! This orange here?

Ryan said...

And chalk up another lifelong subconscious misunderstanding to Sesame Street.

And really, that's what happens to any sin, no matter how alluring, once you get really close. You find out that it really is quite boring and banal. AS C. S. Lewis would say, how dreadfully alike are all the world's great sinners. How gloriously different are all the all the world's great saints.

Anonymous said...

Singing Orange on Sesame Street:

Seraphic said...

Unfortunately and for complicated reasons, my access to YouTube is blocked. But if the orange has a red rubberband mouth, that is probably my Sesame Street Carmen.

Caelaeno said...

Baha. I had a similar experience: when I was about six years old, my grandmother sat me down to watch a movie, explaining that "This is the way life really is!" It was about a pregnant woman, living alone in the middle of the wilderness for some reason or another, who broke her arm in the middle of an earthquake and then had to give birth with a broken arm. I think she also displayed an extraordinary faith in God; I'm afraid I don't remember much beyond the pregnancy, earthquake, birth, and the cast she made out of oatmeal (which I thought was rather impressive). Anyways. I found it all terrifying, and was ever after convinced that pregnant women were doomed to break their arms directly before entering labour. This fear didn't really go away until I broke my arm a couple of years ago and thought "Hey! I'm not pregnant! Wait, why should I be pregnant...GRANDMA!"

Anyways. Childhood television/stories. Powerful stuff.

amy said...

When I was about 8, my best friend and I rented "My Friend Flicka"... but in the box was "Carmen Jones." My mother, through some lapse of judgement, decided that it would be good for us to watch. Carmen was beautiful and I wanted her to be good (but she wasn't). The lead was good and I wanted him to be smart (but he wasn't). It was quite traumatic. I liked the singing orange much better. I might still.

Eowyn said...

It always frustrated me that the sopranos get to be the paradigms of virtue and the mezzo-sopranos are the questionable characters.

Clara said...

If you watch a Rossini opera, it's usually the mezzo who is the heroine--but instead of a damsel in distress, she's feisty and smart and good. I saw one of his operas where a soprano was the lead (Il Turco in Italia)--but she was so promiscuous! And the mezzo, a much smaller role, was the faithful, constant lover. But I think the reason most people cast the mezzo as the villainess (or old woman, or boy) is because of the darker timbre of the voice--I guess the dark, rich tone sounds more seductive, and a pure, clear, high voice sounds more innocent. Hence, Carmen vs. Micaela.

As a mezzo, Carmen is one of staples of the repertoire (though with my higher register I'm more likely to play boys--makes no sense to me, but there you go). There are as many interpretations of that role as there are singers, which must account for the terrible Carmen you saw. But what I see in her is a subtle appeal combined with a freedom that intoxicates men. She's kind of the epitome of "free love." And I think what happens is that men fall for her because she's just out of reach (aka doesn't make herself too available). However, that kind of "free love" sets itself up for despair, as you can see in this story. I've thought about this role a bit, and I think Carmen is more destructive than seductive, and she ends up destroying someone who destroys her in turn. But she's such an interesting, layered character (with really beautiful music!), and I think worth playing. She's definitely not a role model, though.