Taking it seriously

So last night, in Columbus, the audience was laughing at our Carmen all night long. Laughing at this story which ends in the title character’s murder.

It was fantastic. And it made me think a lot about what tradition says about “serious” opera. And if you know me, you know which composer immediately came to mind.

The premiere of Bizet’s opera Carmen in Paris, in March 1875, was not quite a year and a half before the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth. Now, I promise you, I’m not such a Wagner nerd that I can only see non-Wagnerian operas in the reflected light of the master’s calendar. But I’m so struck by how close those operatic birthdays are – and I suspect that Wagner’s domination of the cultural landscape had more than a little to do with the destiny of our favorite French opera.

(cue “fate” theme)

(cue discussion of leitmotiv)

(cue MtMn wandering into the back yard)

Carmen was written for the Opéra-Comique, eleven years after that venerable institution changed its rules to allow opera without spoken dialogue.  The house’s tradition of lighter entertainment featured work consisting of both song and speech. In the German speaking countries, there’s a similar line between opera and operetta, between the Staatsoper and the Volksoper. Our American musical theater comes out of that “comique” tradition.

But the “comique” designation never meant that everything on stage had to be funny. Serious subjects were addressed on the Opéra-Comique’s stage, and in 1864 the management decided to allow works in which everything was sung. Think of what was happening then, the year before Tristan und Isolde blew the doors off of everything. Berlioz and Meyerbeer were at their height. Brahms and Liszt were prominent rivals. Gounod and Verdi were celebrated men in mid-career. Wagner had scandalized all of Paris with Tannhäuser just a few years before. Opera was developing, taking on larger subjects, everything from politics to individual will. The “lighter” theater of Paris seemed to move with the times.

Carmen was a slice-of-life drama, a step towards what would come to be known as verismo. It wasn’t a story of historic lands and rulers, or of gods and saints on high, but of people oppressed by lowly jobs, racial prejudice, and criminal pasts, looking for escape, brought together by migration and circumstance, and caught up in a tragedy arising from all of those elements. It was modern, and gritty, and not what people were used to. Bizet died young shortly after its premiere.

I don’t know very much about the man who took the spoken dialogue of the original Carmen, chose which passages to set to music, and composed recitative passages to be sung in between the arias and ensembles in place of the spoken text. He certainly hoped to give Carmen life outside of the Opéra-Comique. Now a through-composed opera, with everything sung, it could take its place on any stage in the world.

This is the version of the opera that I heard first, like nearly everyone in my generation in America. And to me, it was a deadly serious opera. I learned in the college that Bizet hadn’t written the recitatives, and learned that it was cool to criticize their musical quality. But what I didn’t realize was how much the choices made by this one composer narrowed the possibilities of each character in the drama.

The thing about spoken dialogue is that, well, it isn’t composed. The composer is not setting out the timing and the emotional arc of the text. The performer is free to inflect, to pace each speech according to her own choice, his own whim. An actor can say the words on the page as though she’s saying exactly what she means, or as if she’s saying the opposite. There’s no music around to play into, or play against.

Last night, as the audience laughed at Carmen,  I started to hear the variety there: laughter of hilarity, of recognition, of complicity, of discomfort. They were reacting to the actors inflecting and creating a story on stage with their speech. And for the first time, it hit me – this was what the “comique” was about, this immediacy, this intimacy.

And when the music began, suddenly, behind me a thousand people fell silent.

It wasn’t church, like Tristan can be. I think we’re transitioning out of a long era of treating musical performance like church. I love music church with all my heart, a bunch of true believers together, educated in the same doctrine and praying the same prayers, and I hope this never totally dies. But Carmen feels more like life to me, ridiculous and sexy and casual and fun and daring, always with the possibility of something good or something bad happening.

I think Carmen might have been set on a Wagnerian path, that for a long time, opera lovers may have felt it was more serious and more respectful to treat the tragedy in that story like a Wagnerian drama, fated and inevitable. Last night, I loved experiencing the story not as an allegory, but rather as a cascading tragedy of circumstances whose end the players did not clearly foresee. It felt more like Breaking Bad than Valhalla.

It felt so much more serious.

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