Thursday, June 18, 2009

Defending Carmen

The more I sing Carmen, the more I learn about her, believe in her and love her, and the more I feel that I have to defend her.
After a long and interesting path of 15 different productions of this magnificent opera, I find myself almost sure of my relationship with Carmen and my knowledge of how I want her to be, and how I want to portray her.

In my most recent production, in Israel, I found that not only did I have to "defend" Carmen, the fictional woman, but also the Carmen whom I have created.

Judging from the misguided ideas of some Israeli critics , even the ones who didn't have the pre-notion that Carmen was a "whore", thought she *should* be at least the cliche that one expects to see from her.

I so resent it.

I also resent that the bigger and grander the production it is, the more I am expected to be part of that grandeur...
Carmen wasn't this man-killer monster, she was merely a woman, a girl. Sure she had courage, charisma, beauty and oozes sex appeal (for that she was so popular among the men), but, she was by no means a whore, or a bitch.

I was so lucky to have worked on one on my very first Carmens with the Genius director David McVicar, over a period of almost four months, (this opportunity, by the way, rarely happens in today's opera world anymore), creating an intimate Carmen that was real.
With such an important foundation, from such an immense teacher, I hope I never lose my integrity and tools, and I always try to maintain that core, and only grow from there.

Today, I *know* in my heart, that the Carmen I sing and act, is for sure what is in my best interests, as an artist , to show to my audience; Not their usual big-breasted, big voice, flamenco dancing- thigh rubbing, slow moving, vulgar cliche they mostly expect to see, but something else; more childish, girly, even shy sometimes. hurt. with a rainbow of emotions and colors; a human being, my friends.
What art is reflecting in its mirror is just us.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice and convincing! Words from the hearth!!

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You speak with conviction and spirit of who Carmen is -- and your performances are the better for it!

I am curious to what degree you feel constrained -- or not -- in your interpretation of Carmen by the original character Carmen created by Prosper Merimee. Are we, as modern interpreters of historic or fictional characters created by long-dead librettists and composers, free to change them into whoever we want?

Merimee's Carmen, while physically slight and girlish, was in character a lying, murderous, manipulative (and charming and sexually liberated) member of a maligned minority group. She tells Don Jose up front that she leads men to their deaths, and that he's a fool to trust her and to love her. She later tells him he'll kill her, as well.

Merimee's Don Jose portrays himself as a total victim of this "creature"'s feminine wiles. (A typical 19th century European male attitude -- he takes no responsibility for his feelings and actions, blaming the woman for the lust he feels for her.)

Surely Bizet's attitudes about women, and Spain, and Gypsies, etc., were similar.

So my question to you, as one of the great Carmens of today, is:

Do modern interpreters of characters like Carmen have the "right" to recreate her entirely? Or must we work within the parameters set by the author and composer, similar to the way in music you can play with dynamics and tempi, but only within the limits set by the composer?

12:22 PM  
Blogger Singin'rin said...

Hi there! Very interesting comment. Let me start answering by promising to re-read the libretto again (I have before, of course, but not recently) so I can give you a more complete answer later on. I also will revisit my "opera-comique" original text.

For now I can say as an interpreter of Carmen, I'm never permitted to create her entirely because I am at the hands of the director, the conductor, the set designer... When I come to rehearse the piece, it is what is given to me as a concept, that I have to work with.
So even if I wanted to "create" Carmen- whether it's based on Marimee's or not , I couldn't possibly do it. (Look at the rest of my blog; all kind of different impressions from different productions. Not all with which I agree).

Carmen the novel, as you know, was told as a story by Jose. There was no Michaela, and the entire plot was somewhat different from the one that Bizet, Meilac and Halevy presented.

In the text version (opera comique), (which I performed entirely at Glyndebourne, and later with cuts in other venues), Carmen never really lies to Jose. She promises to reward him when they next meet.
When she learns that he is in jail, she sends him "un pain , avec une lime"...(etc etc)... "et deux piastre".. etc etc.. (bread, file, money)...and when he returns, she prepares an entire feast for him, and she is prepared to give him her whole self, saying : "je paie mes dettes!" (I pay my debt)..'.

(There is even a suggestion that Carmen falls in love so deeply with Jose, that when she realizes that, she gets terrified (as it is would lead her away from her "freedom"), so when Jose doesn't agree to join the smugglers, Carmen uses it to release herself forcefully from that love).
That to me, sounds so much more interesting and so much more real, than the "she was a man-eater heartless monster whore" notion.

So, how she was portrayed *here* (Meilhac/ Halevy) is what I believe Carmen to be. I enjoy including the human complexity of Carmen if I am allowed, as I feel this human complexity is what makes her such an attractive character. :)

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great response! Thanks so much for sharing your insights. I hadn't thought about the director/conductor/set designer influence on character. Singers must be pretty much at their mercy a lot of the time. I recently saw the Carmen at DNO, where Carmen and the other factory workers were out-and-out hookers, practically having an orgy with the soldiers. It was pretty tacky at times. But as a singer -- even in the lead role! -- I guess you have to pick your battles, right?

2:14 PM  
Blogger Singin'rin said...

"But as a singer -- even in the lead role! -- I guess you have to pick your battles, right?"

... well... if I want to keep myself hired... yes ... :P

2:19 PM  
Anonymous ottawamysteryman said...

I first heard parts of 'Carmen' some 25 years ago - I didn't know what I had just heard, but became mesmerized by the Habanera, not knowing that it was that. Later, I heard it in full, and came to know what it was, and heard different sopranos performing it. Today, by chance, I saw the RoyalOpera snippets of you singing Habanera in it. It was so electrifying that it was almost like hearing it for the first time, especially since that clip also has it only in parts. It was so much better than any other I've heard. I just had to find out who Rinat Shaham is, and came to her blog, and now this comment!

Thank you, thank you thank you. It was so wonderful seeing and hearing you on youtube. Perhaps, some day, in person!

11:22 PM  

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