2011 Carmen: Opera! Acting! Singing! Thank you!

Got this book for Christmas. Doesn't cover 'Carmen', but I'll be reading it in 2012.People who know or like opera may want to avert their eyes, I'm about to fling ignorance around like water off a wet dog.

I had only seen three operas. In the late 70s or early 80s I saw a family friend in the female lead of Pirates of Penzance. In the 90s I saw another friend in Candide. Around 1990 PBS aired all of Wagner's Ring cycle done by the New York Metropolitan Opera. I made it through the first show, and part of the second, then interest waned. A foreign language! Subtitles? German? Even as a fan of Norse myths it was too slow, too much work.

Julia Roberts about to bug the shit out of me.So, in the dark I remained. Yet, I knew enough to get PISSED at Pretty Woman during the scene where the prostitute (Julia Roberts) is told by her aristocrat Wall Street tycoon john (Richard Gere) that people either get, nay FEEL, opera or they don't. And only the first time. After that, they may LIKE opera, but they have a never-to-be-remedied manqué soul or something like that. Sure as shit, arriviste Julia Roberts weeps at the opera. Her first time. Ah! See? Heart of gold! What if it were a bad production, Richard Gere, and she were turned off by that? Eh? Even though I didn't know opera, I knew enough to think: "Stop! In the name of Art! Fuuuck YOOOUUU, Pretty Woman!"

I didn't (and still mostly don't) like musicals. And operas amplified what I didn't like about musicals. As a story conveyance device, they were terrible. Rarely showing anything. Flooding the audience with repetitive wordy words, in a foreign language, and not offering much wisdom. Do operas even try have a message? Modern operas, maybe. There's a new one about Nixon going to China. Watching Pat Nixon sing songs might be funny. Otherwise, whatever.

But during 2011, something clicked, and I got interested (though still intimidated). I finally got that operas were not meant to be didactic, they were pageants for humans to stand in defiance of nature's amoral flow. That flow will always prevail, but the demiurge to create a moment and marker was important. Melodrama was inherent. We, as humans, would never win, but identity is conflict, and maybe we would find something of ourselves in that temporary stand. And then the catharsis thing and watching people we empathize with suffer as scapegoats for the expiation of our sins ("Die before me Carmen, so that I may mourn the zesty side of me that yet dreams!") and on and on.

I also got interested in the biography, glamor, and drama of Maria Callas. To be a strong opera performer, compelled to master that moment before a crowd, demands a strong ego. The appeal of the diva will probably be a necessity for holding MY attention. I doubt male vocalists will have that hold for me.

Asking for guidance on Facebook, one friend affirmed Callas was a good start (I already had been listening to her in Norma). Another friend suggested Carmen as the opera to get to know. Snorkeling gear on loan from Parnassus, I leaned off the edge of the boat and flopped in. Read a plot synopsis, then a couple. Read that Bizet wrote "Toreador" in a contemptuous pique of needing to throw a sure-fire hit to the rabble. Problem is, that kind of apocryphal story is told about a LOT of artists, to the modern day. It creates an artificial bond between the artist, the purveyor of the bogus story, and the listener: "Only WE get [insert name of artist]. The swine out there who think [insert name of popular work by artist] is awesome don't know how low the artist regarded THEIR kind of taste."

Bought a studio recording of Callas in Carmen. It became a soundtrack for writing. Much of the score was familiar, of course. Visions of The Bad News Bears during the overture. I'm down with that, though. It's a good movie.

At the end of this year, I caught a production of Carmen on its opening night and truly enjoyed it. The theater was only half full, motivating a shift to better seats during an intermission. Pavlovian conditioning also brought me to scribble writing ideas during the show.

Voices were good, music done well. I don't have a discerning ear about opera so I can't get too analytical there. Some of the acting was dull, especially the body language. But the biomechanics of singing opera capably AND being a nimble performer may be impossible. How many divas wear gowns/muumuus so vast you end up marveling they can ambulate their massive torsos around on anything not a downward slope?

I knew the opera was in French, but was worried I wouldn't be able to follow the lyrics. Yet it was doubtful Eugene was THAT full of people fluent or conversant in French. Don't get me wrong, a college town and all, but STILL - THOUSANDS of people paying money to hear and comprehend French sung operatically? Translated lyrics were projected above the stage. Ah! Bien merçi!

José was in good voice, mostly. Body language sluggish. Carmen was lusty and unapologetic and lived large. Escamillo was funny and preening and bold. Micaëla was lovely with a great voice and the performer seems destined for ascension.

Four acts in 'Carmen'. Act one was okay. Got swept up in Act two. Laughed in Act three. Admired the countdown of 'Carmen' getting sacrificed for our benefit in Act four. Was impressed that I never caught any illuminated rectangles from cellphones or cameras in the audience the entire time. Also, there were no patronizing announcements asking people to turn off their cellphones. People just KNEW and ... no phones rang during the show. A good experience both inward and a mass commisseration. Felt entertained, moved, and optimistic about being a human being.

Yes, I realize if this page is setup right the video played automatically, causing music to come out of your speakers as soon as you got here like a webpage from 1997. Kickin' it old school. To compensate, check out this charming performance of "Habanera" by Callas below ... and YOU get to control the playback. You're welcome!