With Carmen, it’s Complicated
The San Francisco Opera is producing Georges Bizet’s Carmen. It’s a French opera, set in Spain, written about a femme fatale gypsy who works in a Sevilla cigarette factory and a man who falls in love with her.
Tldr; Carmen becomes infatuated with and seduces Don José, sergeant in the local army. She convinces him to upend his humble life, take a jail stint for her and run away into the mountains with her contraband-smuggling comrades. He initially resists, but like every other man who meets her, becomes intoxicated by her incomparable sensuality and submits. She eventually tires of the relationship, of his increasing obsession, and leaves him, but he can’t let her go. He reappears at a bullfighting event starring her famous new lover, Encimillo. Her friends warn her that he looks deranged and murderous, and beg her to avoid him. But she’s too proud to run away. She meets him alone, he demands once more that she choose him and upon her refusal, he murders her.
You aren’t an opera fan, you say? You’ve most certainly heard a few of the extraordinary songs in this opera —
My personal favorite, Seguidilla:
Even the thrilling opening orchestration:
It’s an enduring story and score performed worldwide in opera houses and modified for practically every other genre and style. May I suggest you google the 2001 “hip hopera” starring another enduring femme fatale.
I was talking to my dad in our weekly Skype chat last weekend about the performance. I’ve had a near life-long love affair with the scandalous story, and it all started with a 1983 version on VHS by Spanish director Carlos Saura. It’s shot in a bare bones rehearsal studio in Madrid (?), starring renowned flamenco dancers and featuring interpretations of the Bizet score by one of our forever faves, guitarist Paco de Lucia.
The movie was difficult to get in the US when my dad acquired it in the late 80's, and even now with Amazon Prime and streaming everything, it’s unavailable here. So although we weren’t a big movie-watching family, this was one in our small collection (this and Blazing Saddles, so that should explain a lot). I watched it many times growing up. The music, the archetype of Carmen, the passion, the setting and the story became formative influences on my life. I still love flamenco, Spanish classical guitar, all things Spanish and, of course, Carmen. I think I always will.
I went to the last production of the opera in San Francisco in 2016, a mind-bending, contemporary interpretation by Spanish director Calixto Bieito. It was transcendent, and I still have a poster of that show hanging in my apartment. So when I found out it was playing again, with a different director and cast, I bought myself a single ticket for the Friday night show and took myself out to the opera.
But this show didn’t move me the same way. It was technically beautiful, faithfully performed, and with a badass Black Carmen in J’Nai Bridges, but the whole production was somehow less progressive than I remembered. Or maybe it’s where I am in my life now.
It’s interesting to view the story through the context of feminism, through fetishism, through my own relationship evolution. In some ways, Carmen has long been a feminist icon. She loves who she wants, when she wants, and refuses to compromise her wild spirit. She’s a gypsy, a sexual woman, an occult practitioner. That she’s the titular character of an opera from 1875 is worth celebrating.
In other ways, she is a damsel very much created by the male gaze, almost offering up her life to an entitled, possessive man. This narrative is still playing out with the incels and abusers of our world, who feel entitled to the female bodies and lives around them, though now they have automatic weapons and viral social media manifestos. My work teaching self-defense makes this all the more real as I hear from women impacted by gender-based violence all the time.
I know good stories need some drama, but I’m tired of the fact that in 2019, the man gets to live while the woman, however difficult, has to die. Many things have changed for the better, but our world is often hostile to a complex, independent woman.
Rewatching, I was struck by how toxic their relationship was from the beginning: manipulation, infatuation, obsession, ridicule. The poster in my kitchen says “Carmen is Passion”, but I don’t know if passion must be so destructive. We continue to hawk the idea that love is possessive, love is all-consuming, love is exclusive. It’s a trap. If this is romance, you can keep it.
As I reassess my own relationship patterns, it’s fascinating to notice that some of the aspects of the story I used to gleefully relate to now disturb me. In this production, she seems immature, greedy, and shortsighted instead of independent and at the helm to satisfy her own deepest longings. Surely the vanilla, ordinary Don José would not quench the thirst of a truly self-possessed Carmen. They both seemed to appeal to their most base aspects. Obviously that was not going to end well. (Though I guess I could say the same for most of my exes.)
I rewatched the snippets I could find of my beloved 1983 flamenco VHS. Carmen still dies at the hand of a jealous man, but I was grateful to see some of my favorite scenes continue to deliver a wallop. This clip of the showdown between Carmen (Laura del Sol) and her adversary Cristina (Cristina Hoyos) in the cigarette factory is absurdly potent… to see women filmed so thoughtfully, so vigorously, in a movie from 1983. It‘s aged well, as they say.
I’m glad Carmen exists. In the right light, with the appropriate handling, she’s challenging, compelling, multifaceted… a heroine we desperately need. It’s a story that has captivated artists and audiences for nearly 200 years. But it’s also good to recognize where she fails, or more accurately, where her creators fail, in dooming her and dooming us all to suffer perpetually the weaknesses and brutality of patriarchy.
What if Carmen lives? That’s the story I want to see.