April 14, 2014

Dateline April 2044: The Demise of American Opera

Thanks to my contacts in the field of psychic journalism, I have obtained a copy of an article which will be published in the New York Times on or about the year 2044. This is good,  because I'll be either dead or deep in dementia by then, as opposed to now when my dementia level is spotty at worst.


New York, New York.
American opera house ca. 2044?
(Photo courtesy of Nat Napoletano)
American opera lovers are reacting with shock, grief and even nostalgia at the announcement earlier today from New York's venerable Metropolitan Opera that the company will close permanently following the end of the current season. With this closing, live opera in the United States has virtually been eliminated as, one by one, opera houses from California to Massachusetts and all points in between have been permanently darkened since the Recession of 2008.

Despite heroic efforts from various groups determined to salvage the Met, General Manager James Swindell stated at a morning press conference that "attempts to reach agreement on a sustainable business model have imploded catastrophically, leaving us no options for continued operations in a manner representing acceptable professional and artistic standards."

Swindell pointed to a series of closings of regional opera companies during the aftermath of the Recession of 2008, including the fabled New York City Opera and the San Diego Opera, as "the first events heralding what became a perfect storm of dire economic conditions and indifference on the part of an increasingly jaded and uneducated public."

The closing of the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2027 was a key moment in American opera history. Within 15 months of that failure, opera companies in San Francisco, Des Moines, Phoenix, Boston, Houston, and Detroit followed suit. By January 2041, only the Metropolitan Opera was still in business, though (in the estimation of opera historians) it retained only a shell of its former status as the leading professional company in the world.

Asked whether the Met's historic "High-definition transmissions" of live opera into movie theaters in the early years of the 21st century may have contributed to declining opera ticket sales in cities around the country, Swindell said "That's not at all clear. I myself feel that the "HD" presentations, as well as the ensuing holographic transmissions of opera in private homes, served to provide a lifeline of great art to those who no longer could rely on finding it in their own communities."

The effects of the "Opera is Dead" phenomenon (as it has come to be called) are far-reaching, extending to the reduction of opera training programs at conservatories and collegiate music departments. A corresponding boom in regional theater has seen live theater prosper, with experimental and improvisational theaters in particular experiencing robust traffic.

Choices for opera lovers are now very limited. Live opera continues to flourish in nations with robust economies such as Austria and China. Their holographic transmissions continue to be available in the United States, although at a cost few middle-class Americans are likely to pay.

A recent CNN poll indicated that 78 percent of Americans described their attitude toward the art form of opera as "indifferent". Among adults aged 18 to 40, the percentage was 92 per cent.

May it not be so. Pray it not be so. Gross exaggeration? Read about the Met's current crisis-in-the-making regarding impending confrontational labor negotiations and largely depleted endowment. Take nothing for granted, opera friends.


April 13, 2014

Katie Luther: The Opera - Recap and Prospects

The Marquee at St. Mark's on performance day.
Several months ago I published a couple of posts about my opera about Katie Luther, the wife of Martin Luther. Ingeniously, it was titled Katie Luther: The Opera.  (We toyed with La Forza del Katie, but rejected it on several grounds. Also nixed Dialogues of  the Katies, Le Nozze di Katie, Katie and the Night Visitors and Dead Katie Walking. Golly, titles are HARD!)

So how'd it go? Was it performed as scheduled? Have I been strutting proudly with chest out since last October, or curled in the fetal position, moaning softly?

It was fine. Let me tell you about it, so you'll see that not all opera premieres are as glamorous as those you read about in Opera News.

To recap: this project was the brainchild of Lori Lewis, a soprano who came to singing later in life than most artists. You  may be familiar with Lori's other brainchild, the popular website Everyday Opera, a compendium of material about fashion, decor, cuisine and (duh) opera. Two summers ago, Lori (who was already familiar with one of my children's operas) phoned me to ask if I'd be interested in writing a one-woman music drama for her to perform. Lori is a lifelong Lutheran; Katharina von Bora, who became Luther's spouse, is a character Lori has long admired and dreamed of portraying on the stage.

As Lori received PDF files of each scene as I completed them, she expressed growing excitement about the piece. She showed the piano-vocal score to professionals in the opera world - coaches, voice teachers and other artists - and they too all expressed the general idea that "you've really got something here."

Lori secured the services of a stage director, the talented Vanessa Dinning, to help bring the character to life and block the action. It became time to seek performance venues. Who wants a cool opera at their church or theater? Fliers were generated and sent around the country. Responses were fielded. At one point, four seperate performances were slated in four states. The logical time to feature an opera dealing with Lutheran history is Reformation Weekend, traditionally the last weekend in October. Lori can't sing in four places at once, so other artists were engaged.
St Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church

In the end, there were three simultaneous world premieres in three cities:

  • Albuquerque New Mexico saw two performances on the campus of the University of New Mexico, a performance in which the young Katie of Scene 1 was sung by Melissa Carter with Lori singing the final two scenes;
  • Mezzo soprano Janet Hopkins, a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera stage, sang the complete opera at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri; and
  • Baltimore Maryland was the site for a third performance at St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church featuring soprano Elizabeth Medeiros Hogue.
I engaged Elizabeth for the Baltimore show; she's a long-time friend who lives not far from my office at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk. My wife Ruth Winters, as glorious a collaborative pianist as you'll ever find, once again played Clara Schumann to my Robert and accompanied. As curious as I was to hear Melissa, Lori and Janet, of course I was at the Baltimore performance and can only report on what transpired there. I did hear good reports from Albuquerque and St. Louis, but can only speculate on what those artists and their pianists made of the score.

St. Marks is a gorgeous old church in downtown Baltimore. The sanctuary is blessed with the kind of acoustics in which a burp sounds like a Stradivarius playing Brahms. The three of us - soprano, pianist and composer - drove up from Virginia on Friday the 25th in order to spend Saturday afternoon rehearsing at the church. 

Elizabeth Madeiros Hogue
By now, we had made the executive decision to perform a concert version, replete with period costumes (nun's habit and housedress). To perform the opera with full staging would really have required a conductor, a luxury not in our budget. The burden would be on Elizabeth to create compelling drama through her singing alone. The rehearsals went well, albeit with enough stopping and starting  and mistakes that I mentally prepared myself for a "good but not perfect" rendition.

Though I neglected to count noses, there was a decent crowd Sunday afternoon. Following a post-service church supper, curious opera-goers filed into the sanctuary and half-filled it. I gave a thirty-minute pre-curtain talk, just as I do prior to each Virginia Opera performance, sketching in the history of the project and pointing out certain musical features to listen for. 

What happened next was stunningly remarkable: together, Ruth and Elizabeth produced a flawless, note-perfect, totally inspired performance. It was a perfect storm of artistic commitment and the love of performing from two musicians in total control of the music and their instruments. Best of all, I realized, now having heard the piece brought to life, that my instincts were correct. I had written the piece I meant to write. The moments which seemed effective on paper sounded as I'd hoped they would. It was a very good feeling.

Elizabeth has a large, flexible soprano equally at home in Verdi heroines, Wagner's "Liebestod" or Mozart's Queen of the Night, all of which she's performed onstage. The voice is perfectly and creamily even throughout her range,, with a top that blooms and shimmers. How I wish I had sprung for a recording engineer to capture that performance on tape! 

Two funny anecdotes:

The centerpiece of the opera is a set-piece aria in Scene 2, in which Katie muses on the nature of her marriage. It encompasses a roller-coaster of emotions not unlike Cio-Cio-san's "Un bel di". Realizing that the audience might feel unsure whether or not to applaud at the end of the aria, I decided to act as Elizabeth's "claque" and start the applause. Elizabeth reached the end. I clapped vigorously. A thought-balloon instantly became visible, hovering over the heads of the audience. It said: "What idiot is ruining the show by clapping like an idiot?" I stopped clapping. (Any doubts that they simply didn't like it were dispelled by the lusty and appreciative applause following the end of the opera.) Also:

There was a reception afterwards. The fellowship hall of St. Mark's was all laid out with reception staples: a table with bottles of wine and bowls of punch; trays of finger-foods of every description; and rows of tables with folding chairs set up. When Elizabeth finally entered, following her change out of costume, everyone rose to their feet and cheered. And I? Your humble Composer-and-Blogger? Well, I was seated at one of the tables along with my wife, and some family members who had made the trip in support of my big day, including my sisters Alice and Juliet and Juliet's son and grand-daughter. Now, at one point an elderly woman spotted our table and made a bee-line towards us. I prepared myself for an onslaught of compliments. 

Instead, she brushed past me as if I was one of the folding chairs and grabbed Ruth by both shoulders. "Honey", she announced loudly, "your music was GORGEOUS. Simply GORGEOUS." And then she was gone in search of a glass of chablis.

Did she think Ruth wrote the damn music? When I talked for half an hour about how I went about composing it, was she in the ladies' room? Oh well, no matter. The fact is that for me, the fulfillment of composition stems from the actual experience of creating it and also from hearing it performed with perception and understanding. What others think of it is of little importance, good or bad.

Will Katie live on to see other days? The answer appears to be yes. I demurred on a proposed national tour when it became clear to me that what was being planned would not pan out with the desired results. However, there is a good chance that Katie Luther will be staged at a new opera festival in Copenhagen in 2015, and I've received other requests for perusal scores from those interested in new operas. We shall see.

And - in case  you're interested - Ruth and Elizabeth will be making a CD of my opera that should be ready for sale by Summer, 2014. I'll let you know how to order a copy in a future post.

April 6, 2014

Transcipt: A Recent San Diego Opera Board Meeting

A few stalwart San Diego Opera Board members.
Like many opera lovers, I have been following the developing story of the crisis at the San Diego Opera. Since my employers in Norfolk, Virginia have their own struggles with the economy to deal with, I can't help but think "There but for the grace of God...". While I am heartened by the recent news story of a San Diego board member stepping up with a $1,000,000 gift, I remain frustrated and mystified by the attitudes and actions of the Board in general in voting to close the company.

So here's something that can shed a little light on the situation. By means of my universally-acknowledged psychic powers, I have obtained a possibly verbatim transcript of a recent meeting of the beleaguered Board of Directors of the beleaguered San Diego Opera. The meeting was opened by the beleaguered Chairperson:

The meeting will come to order. Hmmm... it doesn't appear as though all the members are present. We should figure out who's missing... (stops to consider the situation) All those not in attendance, please signify by raising your hand. (No one does so.) Hey! Looks like I was wrong! I always thought we had more than this. I must be getting forgetful! Very well, let's proceed. The Secretary will read the minutes from the last meeting.

The meeting came to order at ten a.m. in the morning. Many wonderful members were present, which was so dedicated of them. It was pointed out that San Diego Grand Opera...

I must interrupt you. The company's name is "San Diego Opera". Yes, it's true that our piece of resistance is Grand Opera, such as Don Pasquale, Porgy and Bess, and... wait - what's that weird one? Oh yes: Wozzeck. They are truly grand, aren't they? Especially when stars like Dolora Zajick and Placido Domingo come to our fair city to sing in them. But still, sweetie, "grand" isn't part of the name. Go on, dear.

Well, I think it should be part of the name. Maybe we could take a vote on that later, when we get to New Business. The public should realize how truly grand we are. Our costumes are grand. Our sets are grand. The orchestra is grand, especially the principal trumpet. Besides being really cute, he's as grand as they come. And...

(impatiently tapping her pencil) That will do. The Secretary shall conclude the reading of the minutes. Although I'm sure we are all in agreement. Proceed.

Anyways, it was noted that, thanks to the tireless work of we, the Board, and the amazing generosity of the people of San Diego, the company's budget has been balanced for the past 28 seasons.

I move that we all declare "Hip hip hooray!" for this notable achievment.

Is there a second?

Me! I second the motion!

So moved. All in favor say "Aye".


The motion has carried. We, the Board, officially declare "Hip hip hooray!". About the budget thing. Now then: is there any new business?

Madame Chairperson, the Garden Committee has decided on tea-roses rather than daffodils as centerpieces for the annual Guild luncheon on June 11.

Ask if they can get those peach-colored ones. Those are so lovely. Any other new business?

The Artistic Department has announced the Grand operas for this coming season. In 2015. Next year. They are: La bohème, Don Giovanni, Nixon in China, and Tannhäuser. 

Does anyone else feel kind of "meh" about the proposed season? I mean, La bohème"?. I believe San Diego is tired of this old war-horse. And while it's grand, very grand, I see that neither Placido Domingo nor Dolora Zajick is cast in it, which tells me that we're slipping. As a company. SLIPPING. And Mozart? There's not a single high C in the entire opera. Dullsville. And then this John Adams - he's obviously American, and I believe he's still living. I don't think that's what San Diego likes. And Wagner! I mean... REALLY, now. Gosh, it's all starting to seem... so pointless... so futile... so... so repetitive...


Any other new business?

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. Some idiot brought up those annoyingly stupid ideas again.

You don't mean...

Yes. "Flash mobs" and a revision to the San Diego Grand Opera Company policy about seating late arrivals.

(in a beleaguered and reproving tone) What did I say? About our name?

Sorry, sorry - why is that so DANG HARD TO REMEMBER? Anyways, we still all think flash mobs are stupid, right? I mean, first of all, are they "Grand"? No. There's nothing grand about a shopping mall or a train station. Only opera houses are "grand". Second of all, people put flash mobs on YouTube. Is THAT what we want for Dolora Jajick? Put her on YouTube next to videos of cats playing basketball and trying to hump turtles?

Wait - cats hump turtles?

Let's stay on topic, another member. 

Anyways, about the late arrivals thing. How are people going to learn to allow enough time to travel here unless we make them miss up to 50% of the show they paid up to hundreds of dollars to enjoy? And if they get all ticked off and stomp out the door, never to return, well: doesn't that mean they're just not "our kind of people"?

Absolutely, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that this should have been brought up under "Old Business" since we've totally trashed both those ideas several times in the past.

I forgot til just now. Sue me.

Is there any actual new business to discuss?

Yeah, Madame Chairpersonwoman, I hate to be a real buzz-kill here, but I have some news that's kind of a bummer. A downer. A rain-on-the-ol'-parade type of thing.

Well, being on the Board of Directors of the San Diego Grand Opera isn't all rainbows and unicorns, you know.

Hah! You said "San Diego Grand Opera"!!! Gotcha!

Well now, don't I have egg on MY face! But moving on, let's hear that troubling New Business.

It appears unlikely that our budget will be balanced next season. We'll be a few million short.

But... but... the budget has been balanced for the past 28 seasons!

I know, I know, but ticket sales are down and donations are down.

In spite of our tireless work?

Um, Madame Chairperson? About that... I don't know about everyone else, but... (gosh, this is awkward)... I'm a little tired actually. Of working. Of the Board thing. Of grand opera. I mean, once you've heard Dolora Zajick, you've heard her. Know what I mean? THERE! I said it!

Does anyone else feel that way?

Yeah, we all do. THERE! We said it!

Is there a motion on the floor?

I move we shut 'er down. The whole doggone San Diego Grand Opera. Shut 'er down. Nip it in the bud. Close it. Bring down the curtain. Deep-six it. Adios, amigo. Toodle-oo. Don't let the green-room door hit ya in the butt on yer way out. Pack it in. Ciao, baby. Lock it up and throw away the key.

Is there a second?

I second the motion.

All in favor?


Wait! Shouldn't we table this motion until all the members have a chance to vote?

You silly member! You'll recall at the beginning of this psychically-obtained transcript that we already determined everyone was present!

(feeling very silly) Right. I forgot.

The motion is carried. The San Diego Opera is now defunct. Any other new business? Wait - now I'm  the silly one! There can't be any more new business -- we're defunct!! The meeting is adjourned.

Does this mean we won't need the tea-roses for the luncheon?

March 30, 2014

San Diego Opera and other Questions

Question, question, questions...
  • Isn't the massive pushback following the outrageous decision to close the San Diego Opera one of the more remarkable public outcries for the arts in recent memory? 
    Howdy Doody; pourquoi, dude?
  • Or ever?
  • Do you blame me if my level of suspicion regarding ulterior motives in San Diego are on a par with my suspicions about New Jersey's George Washington Bridge scandal?
  • Come to that, are we 100% sure that Gov. Chris Christie isn't mixed up in this San Diego mess?
  • Isn't Werther's aria "Pourquoi me reveiller" really a minor-mode version of "It's Howdy Doody Time" from the vintage children's TV show?
  • If you don't know Howdy Doody, can't you alternately sing the words "Ta ra ra boom di ay" to the Werther melody?
  • However, having conceded the point about "Ta ra ra boom di ay" as per the link above, shouldn't we also concede that Barney the Dinosaur would be woefully miscast as Werther? Wrong fach completely, right?
  • Speaking of Werther, if your HD cinema presentation, like mine, was marred by the loss of the audio for most of the final scene, doesn't the absence of music just make us doubly -- or even triply -- aware that it takes that boy a long, long, long, LONG time to die?
  • In view of 1) its very static dramatic nature and 2) the reality that the choral music is the best part, shouldn't Borodin's Prince Igor be performed more like an oratorio?
  • Could the questions asked of singers during intermissions of Metropolitan Opera HD transmissions BE any more innocuous and butt-kissingly banal? Do the hosts of those intermission features really HAVE to be so teeth-gratingly worshipful? ("Oh, brava, brava, you are just INCREDIBLE! I am in AWE of you! How did you get to be so WONDERFUL?")
  • If Franz Schubert had lived 30 more years instead of dying at 31, do you think he would have figured out opera and finally written a good one?
  • If Mozart had lived 40 more years would his operas have evolved into the Romantic style? Would Mozart at age 75 have sounded like Bellini or Mendelssohn?
  • And while we're on the subject, how come Brahms didn't write any stinkin' opera? What was HIS problem? 
  • Does it say something bad about me that I had no desire or motivation whatsoever to go see the Met's latest La Boheme HD presentation with Vittorio Grigolo and some soprano named Anita somebody?
  • No, seriously, isn't Werther's death scene WAY TOO LONG?????
  • Wouldn't it be cool if somebody built a Disneyland-style theme park for Wagner lovers called "Fernemland"?
  • Don't most of us consider the Board of Directors of the late, lamented San Diego Opera to be a bunch of gutless, visionless wussies with no problem-solving mojo?
  • Will you hate me if I say that Emma Thompson, for all her considerable gifts and charisma, didn't measure up to the immortal Angela Lansbury in terms of singing chops in the New York Philharmonic's recent Sweeney Todd?
  • If you're honest, won't you admit that you can't stop singing "Ta ra ra boom-di-ay" to the Massenet tune?
  • You're not? What's wrong with you??

March 23, 2014

Carmen, Eugene Onegin, Werther, Pagliacci and their endings

Why did Carmen fail in its first production in 1875? Bizet went to his grave believing that he had never succeeded in creating a popular success; that Carmen was one more disappointment, joining The Pearl Fishers, The Fair Maid of Perth, Djarmila, Dr. Miracle and others.
Canio: a successful butcher.

When a great opera is first received with hostility, there is usually no one single reason. Such phenomena generally involves a spider's web of circumstances. Carmen is no different. Many have pointed to the post-mortem addition of sung recitatives by Ernest Giraud to replace the original spoken dialogue. But I'm thinking about the violent ending.

Carmen  premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1875. This theater had, from its earliest years, catered to a particular kind of audience. Large-scale epic productions with ballet and significant chorus parts were more the norm at the Paris Opéra. Here were serious, substantive subjects based on Greek mythology, Biblical stories and the like, appealing to educated (read: "wealthy") audiences.

Though there are always exceptions, the Opéra Comique tended more towards middle-class entertainments: less intellectually challenging, with tuneful scores. Arias were often couplets, i.e. verse with chorus. Ballet and huge choral passages were not so prominent. And, significantly, love stories would either have a "happily ever after ending" (boy ends up with the girl) or a "sad & tragic ending" (boy or girl or both kick the bucket).

If death of a leading character was involved, particularly if she happened to be of the soprano persuasion, it would be what might be called a "pretty death": whether she took some poison or had a touch of tuberculosis (cough cough kiffy kiffy cough), a dying soprano might well appear to be going to sleep as she bid the world adieu. This tradition continued through such characters as Puccini's Mimi.

So imagine yourself as a happy member of the bourgeoisie on the evening of March 3, 1875, with tickets to see the new opera by Bizet: Carmen. Word on the street has it that it's an exotic tale of old Seville and a sultry gypsy. That sounds way COOL! Castanets and tambourines and fiery gypsy dances? You be DOWN with that!

As the evening progresses, you're finding it a bit heavy going, although it has some entertaining moments. Time for the final scene: the jealous soldier-boy is going to beg the gypsy girl to take him back.

You sure weren't expecting to see her BUTCHERED IN FRONT OF YOU right there on stage. Mon dieu! Revolting! Disgusting! What kind of offensive garbage IS this?!?!?

I notice that quite a lot of middle-class folks in contemporary America have no problem confessing an addiction to the PBS soap opera Downton Abbey. (Full disclosure: I like it myself.) But a large proportion of Downton-ites would never even consider watching "Breaking Bad". And why? "It's unpleasant". "Too violent". "Too graphic". Of course, the characters in Downton can be just as rotten as the characters on more violent shows. But they wear pretty clothes, live in a pretty house and speak cultivated English, so it's "nicer".  Fine; but if graphic TV dramas encounter such push-back in 2014, imagine proper French opera-lovers seeing the violent death of a woman onstage 139 years earlier; something never before seen.

What were they expecting? I can tell you by referencing two other operas, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (1879) and Massenet's Werther 1892). Both works deal with men hopelessly obsessed with an unobtainable woman, begging their respective women to return their love. 

In Onegin, the title character realizes too late that Tatiana is the love of his life. In their final duet, she tearfully tells him that it's too late; she's a married woman now. As she walks off, leaving him alone on the stage, he collapses, crushed by the realization that his life is ruined.

In Werther, once again our male protagonist has latched onto a respectable married woman who is tragically unavailable to him. Believing life to be ruined, he kills himself with a pistol.

Both of these conclusions fit into the paradigm of "acceptable" deaths on the lyric stage from the point of view of a mid-19th century audience. A man sobbing because he's lost his true love? Acceptable. A man shooting himself because of lost love? Acceptable.

A man butchering a woman with a knife? MON DIEU!!! You see, Bizet didn't play the game; he confounded expectations in a manner doomed to offend.

One more famous opera to consider: Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, which debuted the same year as Werther. In this finale, Canio the clown famously butchers his unfaithful wife Nedda in front of both the stage audience watching his "comedy" and you and me in the actual audience. 

But Italian audiences did not boo or scream "DIO MIO!" in horror. Why not? Because now the Italians had invented this cool scuola nuova of opera called Verismo. This style, ostensibly dedicated to unvarnished "truth", was no longer interested in "pretty deaths", maidenly virginal sopranos or dashing, heroic tenors. No, verismo composers turned their attention to the seedy side of life: clowns and peasants and the like. In verismo operas, if you suspect your wife of being unfaithful, DUH! Of COURSE she is! Don't be naive!

But here's the thing: Bizet beat his Italian colleagues to the punch seventeen years earlier. Carmen can be considered the first truly verismo opera. Perhaps the passing of time, bringing with it more tolerance for graphic violence, also helped Bizet's masterpiece to gain acceptance througout the opera world.

March 16, 2014

Gypsy on the couch: Carmen's pathology

Noted amateur psychologist
Georges Bizet
My favorite moment in Bizet's Carmen is probably not the same as yours. You? You probably like the flashy, colorful arias, you. Habanera. Seguidilla. Toreador. Like that. And you're not wrong. They're terrific, I agree.

But I've just come off a stretch of two months of virtually daily lecture classes and talks about this music all over the Commonwealth of Virginia. And I'm here to tell ya: it'll be a LONG time before I need to hear the Habanera again. A longgggggg time. It's like when you eat too many pancakes; suddenly, pancakes just aren't that appealing.

What I don't tire of is the moment when Carmen sings a six-note phrase in response to Don José's impassioned "Flower Song". It's not a "lovely melody" by any means. It's virtually unaccompanied. In a flat voice lacking any affect whatsoever, she sings: "No, tu ne m'aime pas" ("No, you don't love me.")

What's so great about that? I'll explain in a minute.

Carmen, in her final confrontation with José in Act 4, puts us in mind of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Giovanni, with the fire and brimstone of Hell at his feet, facing eternal damnation, refuses to save himself by repenting as the Commendatore demands. Similarly, Carmen, with her spurned lover's knife at her throat saying "Tell me you love me!", confounds us by not playing along; by instead affirming that she does not love him any more. Seconds later, the chance to remain alive having been missed, she's collapsed in a pool of blood.

Actually, in that last duet, she has three seperate moments of flinging her defiance in José's face, almost like the Apostle Peter three times denying his acquaintance with Jesus. 

Peter was likely fearful. Carmen, oddly, was not. 

We admire courage in our fellow human beings; the lack of fear is often the mark of a brave hero. But it can also be a red flag to a particular kind of abnormal psychology. You know who never feels fear?

The sociopath. 

Yes, Your Humble Blogger, just as in last week's post, is gettin' his Freud on. DISCLAIMER: obviously, I am not a psychologist and you could fill up libraries with what I don't know about the subject.

But I can find research from those who are experts, and that's the basis for my analysis of Carmen.
Here are the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual criteria for identifying sociopathic behaviors. (This information is widely available; among the sources I consulted are Psychology Today and
and psychcentral.com.)

  1. Failure to conform to social norms of lawful behavior by repeatedly performing acts qualifying for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness: lying or conning others for personal gain or for sheer pleasure.
  3. Impulsiveness; failure to plan ahead.
  4. High degree of aggressiveness or irritability.
  5. Disregard for safety of self or others
  6. Lack of remorse, guilt, shame, manifested as indifference or rationalizing.
In addition, it is known that the sociopath is incapable of empathy; to this individual, other people are merely objects; objects to be manipulated for his/or her own agenda. The only emotional affect really authentic to the sociopath is anger or irritability when his/her wishes are frustrated. They are, however, very good mimics and are experts at "blending in" with well-adjusted people by aping love, charm, concern, fear, shame, and so on.

This is Carmen. She rings the bell on every single marker. In Prosper Mérimée’s novel, the basis for the opera, Don José, telling his story to the narrator, remembers the time a fight broke out in the cigar factory where he was stationed in Seville. Carmen, sassed by the woman working next to her, slashed the woman across the face with a knife. (See Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 5 above.)

In the opera, Carmen is brought out to be questioned about the incident by the authorities. How does she respond? Does she claim self-defense? Does she tearfully beg for mercy? Nope: displaying no affect other than boredom and insolence (See No. 6 above), she sings "Tra la la la la" and refuses to answer any questions. This is as good as opera composing gets, my friends.

In the novel, José recounts how he was assigned to guard the prisoner and how she manipulated him into letting her go. Gypsies, he explains, with no true homeland of their own, are adept at picking up languages; they can converse with Englishmen, Italians, Moors, anyone. Carmen spoke to José in his own Basque language, which made him want to help her. 

The way Bizet transfers this device into musical terms is nothing short of true genius. In Carmen, every principal character except Carmen has a characteristic musical style. Micaela always sounds sweet, pure and maidenly. Don José always sounds highly emotional and earnest; his heart is on his sleeve. Escamillo always sounds smugly cocky and confident. The gypsy thieves Le Remendado and Le Dancaire always have a light, bantering tone.

Carmen, on the other hand, has no individual melodic style of her own; rather, she adopts the style of whoever she's interacting with in order to either blend in (as in the Act 2 Quintet with the thieves) or to manipulate. This is what happens in the Act 1 finale, the scene corresponding to the passage in the novel I described above when José lets the Gypsy girl go free. At the end of her "Seguidilla", Carmen makes the promise of love in exchange for her freedom. (See No. 2 above.) Looking into his eyes, she suddenly sings a soaring line just dripping with sincerity. It's un-Carmen-like, but sounds exactly like the emotional Don José. Upon hearing his own "language", he sings the same tune back to her and cuts through the ropes that bind her. (In the novel, Don José tells the narrator that "every word that ever came out that girl's mouth was a lie".)

Look carefully at her music: the Act 2 Quintet; the syrup-sweet Act 4 duet with Escamillo. Carmen is a musical chameleon, never singing twice in the same style. And it's all fake. All of it.

Carmen doesn't love José or Escamillo. The sociopath doesn't experience love, other than love of self. For her, sex is commerce; sex is currency. She is willing to have sex with José because he went to prison for her. Fair enough.

And that line I esteem so highly; that "No, tu ne memes pas"? Here's what is so breath-takingly brilliant about it: it's very lack of any emotional content whatsoever. My god, any normal woman having been serenaded by an aria as gorgeous as the "Flower Song" should melt into her man's arms, ready to make love. 

But Carmen's cold, calculating lizard-brain is simply observing José during the entire number. The thought-balloon over her head would read something like this: "Wow, he's really serioius. Hmmm. He's really into me. This is good: I can get him to do anything now. The gypsy gang needs extra men for this job coming up; I'll bet I can get this guy to desert the army for me. I'll be he'll give me his horse. I mean, he went to jail for me, right?"

Here's one other good example of sociopathic behavior to add to my argument. You want irritibility and faked emotional affects? In Act 2, just out of prison, Don José reunities with Carmen, ready to begin their life together. Carmen, "playing nice" with her "new boyfriend", brings out the castanets and proceeds to charm him with the 1875 version of a lap dance until a military bugle is heard in the distance. A chagrined José explains that he's being summoned back to the barracks; freshly out of the brig, he can't afford to go AWOL. Now how might a well-adjusted woman react? She might pout. She might smile seductively and say "Are you SURE you have to go back? I sure would like to see you tonight" and so forth. But not Carmen. In an instant, like a car going from 0 to 60 in one second, she turns on him in a rage (the sociopath's only authentic affect), berating and taunting him. 

That's not normal.

Understand this: sociopaths were not identified, codified and analyzed until the 1930's. Carmen debuted in 1875. How did Bizet and his librettists, a couple of generations before Science broached the subject, manage to present us with a portrait of a sociopath that is clinically accurate in every respect? Artists like Bizet are great intuitive psychologists. They have insight into human behavior. Long after I've had a bellyful of the "Toreador Song", I continue to marvel at the depths of that insight and his ability to express it in musical terms.

March 9, 2014

Don José the Misogynist

Carmen, like all extremely popular operas, suffers from its popularity. The sheer familiarity of the tunes - as well as the story - can blind us to some of the work's most profound and fascinating features.

Take the lead tenor role, that soldier boy from the Basque provinces, Don José. Too many opera-lovers see him as a trusting country boy with a loving heart, led astray by that Gypsy witch Carmen. How many times does the word "love" come out of José's mouth? He loves his girl-friend Micaela; he loves his mother; he adores Carmen. Just a big ol' bucket of love, this boy.
Paul Lhérie, who created the
role of  Don José

But, as all teen-aged girls are warned by their mothers, you can't judge the depth of a man's love by what he says; it's how he behaves that tells the tale. (You knew that, right? Of course. My readers all listen to their mothers.)

I've stepped back from the "earnest, passionate country boy" and viewed him objectively through the filter of his actions. And one thing has become very clear:

Don José doesn't love any women. Not Micaela, not Mom and not Carmen. He is a textbook example of a misogynist: a man who harbors hatred towards women.

"Oh, like you're some expert", I can hear you saying. And you're right; I'm not. So I went to the Information Highway on my handy laptop and found people who are. I'm going to cite an article appearing on the website Lifeskills International (available at this link) in which several characteristic behaviors of misogynists are listed. This is the sort of article designed to enable women to decide whether their boyfriends, husbands or fathers exhibit misogyny; it's the sort of situation where answering "yes" to three or four traits suggests counseling be sought. Here are some that stood out to me as being readily apparent  in José. To wit:

  • Playing the role of the "Knight in Shining Armor" ("I'll save you!") Don José says these very words to Carmen twice in their final scene.
  • He's extremely possessive and obsessively jealous. José begins this behavior immediately after his reunion with Carmen in Act 2, when she teasingly tells him she was dancing for men in the tavern earlier that evening. The behavior escalates throughout the rest of the opera.
  • A poor relationship with his mother. This one might surprise you; you may even disagree. After all, doesn't Don José sing a 12-minute extended duet with Micaela in Act 1 in which he does little but proclaim his love for mother, gladly accepting Mom's kiss as delivered by her proxy? Sure, but answer me this: why, then, if he loves his mother so devotedly, does he run as fast as he can towards a Gypsy woman who is her polar opposite?  Carmen is the "anti-Mom"! I'm wondering - what in the world did José's mother do to him? Actually, the libretto gives us some clues. During that Act 1 "I love mom" duet, Micaela slips in a provocative comment, telling José that his mother "wants to forgive him". Forgive him?? What's that about? Many of you will be familiar with our soldier's back story: as a youth in his native village, during a fight occuring in a game of pelota, José killed a man. Then in Act 3, when Micaela visits him in the thieves' hideout to ask him to return with her, once AGAIN she mentions that Mom wants to forgive him on her deathbed. This time, we infer, it's for being a deserter from the military. Here's my theory: all his life, from earliest childhood, Don José has been a constant disappointment to Mamacita, and she is constantly letting him know by making a big show of needing to forgive him. 
  • His view of reality is distorted. Just look at the final confrontation in Act 4. Carmen dumped Don José months earlier; she is now the official girlfriend of Escamillo. Yet when José shows up, he's still asking her to start a new life with him. He's pretty much deaf to all her repeated denials that she feels anything like love for him. His inability to process that reality is what triggers the violence.
  • He has problems with authority figures. José is ready to abandon Carmen and return to his post in Act 2, but when confronted by his superior officer Zuniga, he snaps and attacks him.
  • He has a dual personality, a Jeckyll and Hyde syndrome. As sweet as sugar with Micaela in Act 1, but when she shows up in Act 3, he gruffly barks at her: "What are YOU doing here?" And when he reluctantly leaves Carmen in that scene to see his dying mother, his parting words, "We shall meet again", are snarled hatefully.
  • Cannot take responsibility for his problems, always blaming others. He calls Carmen a "she-devil" and a "demon", but the cold facts are this: everything bad that happens to him is a result of his poor decisions and impulsiveness.
  • When he gets angry, he turns destructive. You know how the opera ends, right.
Other sources I consulted reveal that misogynistic men tend to gravitate towards groups, organizations or activities dominated by men, display thuggishness and are involved in violent sports. José is in the military in Acts 1 and 2, and in a criminal street-gang in Act 3. His history in pelota takes care of the thuggishness and athletic issues.

All this in no way diminishes the tragic nature of this character; if anything, the tragedy is more profound: Don José and Carmen are like two chemicals that should never come into contact, because an explosion will result. Their respective personality traits doom them once they spot each other; no other outcome is possible than mutual doom.

Next week, we'll put Carmen herself on the psychiatrist's couch! The doctor is IN, BABY!!