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If Romance Is Dead, Opera’s Giving Me Life

‘Carmen’ is an old warhorse. Why I’m taken by its charms.

Dorothy Woodend 6 May 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Carmen is the opera that many of us know. At its recent local run at the venerable Queen Elizabeth Theatre in downtown Vancouver, I was tempted to yodel at the top of my lungs, “Toreador, don’t spit on the floor!” It's a favourite schoolyard reworking of the opera's most famous aria. I restrained myself, because the Vancouver Opera’s new production of Carmen was already a glorious amount of fun.

With a love-crazed soldier, a bullfighter on a motorcycle and a hot woman in a red dress, this production of Carmen hit all the high notes. It’s been days now and the damn “Flower Song” is still stuck with me. Here’s the most superlative version of all time.

The action takes place in Seville, where a young army corporal named Don José meets a cigarette factory worker named Carmen. In older versions of the narrative, Carmen was a Roma, but in more contemporary versions, this has been changed to smuggler, revolutionary and freedom fighter. Whatever the incarnation, Carmen remains a femme fatale of the first order. Poor old Don José doesn’t stand much of a chance against her sexy ways, and once she casts a flower at his feet and flounces off, the die is cast.

Before long, the soldier has deserted his martial duties for the promise of some hot loving. For his troubles, he’s imprisoned when he helps Carmen escape the authorities. A few more operatic twists, and she persuades him to join her group of smugglers in the mountains.

It’s here where his endless jealousy sours their love affair. Sick of his clingy ways, Carmen abandons Don José for the infinitely sexier Escamillo, an acclaimed local toreador. Her spurned lover vows revenge and the stage is set for a final deadly showdown.

In the Vancouver Opera’s production of Carmen, Don José’s demented jealousy is conveyed by tenor Alok Kumar with suitable unhinged style. His vocal prowess is met and matched, if not entirely overcome, by mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko as Carmen, a temptress unparalleled.

There were plenty of nice quirky touches, like toreador Escamillo (Matthew White) arriving on a motorbike, looking like a leather-jacketed, long-haired version of James Dean. The set, designed to recall Latin America in broad strokes, is lovely, filled with peeling posters that advertise bullfights and cigarettes. Smoking plays a big part in this version of Carmen. The only odd note is the 1950s-influenced costumes that recall John Waters’ camp romp Cry-Baby more than anything else.

Carmen is a potent reminder that opera does amour fou unlike any other form. I think it ruined me for any kind of conventional romance.

After all this, could any normie make the cut?

How could any regular man measure up to the heady heights of operatic heroes? I think of the opera Turandot featuring Calaf, the unknown prince, who woos Princess Turandot by offering to die if she can’t figure out his name by the time the sun peeps over the horizon. Then there are the doomed romantics of La Bohème. And the transcendent seductive power of Tristan and Isolde.

I have loved opera since I was a very young child, although I considered Carmen too populist for my tastes. I was a snob, even at the tender age of 10. In all honesty, some of this attraction and compulsion had to do with the battle of the sexes: two equally powerful forces fighting for supremacy.

The searing moment in Turandot when the male and female lead do epic vocal battle thrilled me quite unlike anything else. So did the showdown between Tosca and Scarpia, the evil rape-y police chief in Puccini’s Tosca, where the villain gets what’s coming to him, specifically a steak knife in the middle of his chest.

It’s harder to enjoy these stories these days. The snake in this musical garden is that the old trope of sex and violence hits differently now than it did in days of yore.

Man versus bear

One of the latest memes making the rounds online features women addressing the question of whether they’d rather be stranded in the woods with a bear or a man. The punchline is that most often, women choose the bear.

At the end of Carmen, the titular woman declares that she will live free, no matter the cost. And, of course, she ends up dead. In this moment for me, the bear idea popped up unbidden. After all, the “dead women” trope is kind of an ongoing thing in the opera world.

Back to bears for a moment. The majority of women in the memes choose bears over men in the woods for a few different reasons. If you leave them alone, bears usually leave you alone. If a bear attacks you, usually people believe you. And most people won’t ask what you were wearing at the time. This all attracted a bit of a hue and outcry from men.

So, can one still enjoy Carmen despite the sexual violence? Yes, but it would be interesting to see a reworking of these older narrative structures so that the body count isn’t as staggering. That would, of course, require a wholesale renovation of the operatic art form itself. Is that even possible?

In watching older films, even films from only a few years ago, broadcasters have added content warnings, explaining that the works of art you’re about to see were created in a different, albeit less aware, age. And the majority of famous operas were written in the 19th century, bearing the hallmarks of the period.

Contemporary opera companies have devised numerous creative strategies for contending with the more problematic aspects of the form. Some companies recast productions of Madama Butterfly to address the power imbalance between its two leads.

The story follows a young Japanese woman who is used and abused by an American navy officer named Pinkerton (my grandmother always called him “Stinkerton” because of his evil ways). There have been attempts to cast Japanese sopranos as opposed to white performers, but the problems and issues extend to more than race.

While it is interesting to see an old warhorse like Carmen trundled out for new generations of opera fans, I sometimes wonder what the younger set makes of these older forms. I’m waiting for the day when a new production decides to overturn the usual narrative tropes of a work like Carmen and let the fiery, liberation-espousing woman at its centre live on and love freely. That’s an opera I’d like to see and hear!  [Tyee]

Read more: Music, Gender + Sexuality

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