February 24, 2011
I've never quite figured out why, but I spent much of last year obsessed with Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen." I read the original novel by Prosper Mérrimée (1845), Bizet's adaptation of it (1875), and then viewed about two-dozen complete recorded performances. Still hungering, I scoured YouTube for every clip I could find. Every night, from January 1 to mid-July, I watched at least one act of the opera (joined, luckily, by my wife -- otherwise I would have driven her crazy with "the same music" night after night).
About halfway through this mania last year we wrote separate articles for the Chestnut Hill Local about the experience. Mine was titled "What being with Carmen nine times has taught me" (April 14, 2010 ... in the Local's archives, or e-mail me for a copy... or see this blog's archives).
One fascinating reaction I received came from a local reader who is a world-level expert on "Carmen." This gracious and erudite lady, who chooses to remain anonymous, (we'll call her "Célestine," after the actress who first played Carmen) specializes in "the changing image of Carmen over time." And Madame Célestine also collects Carmen imagery -- playbills, postcards, and cabinet photographs, for example, and recorded performances. Would we like to see her collection?
Would we? Oh, my. As soon as we could we spent a wonderful evening, first having dinner, and then spending hours looking through the albums she's built over the years. What a thrill that was, and what an education I received.
I shall return to Madame C in a moment, but must now describe another endeavor that grew out of my "Carmen" interest last year. An idea came to me one evening.
Some background in case your memory needs refreshing: two characters dominate this French opera that is set in Spain. Don José is a naive country boy who loves his mother and is betrothed to a sweet girl from back home. He has joined the army and is stationed in Seville. La de da. He meets the cigar factory worker, Carmen, when she teasingly throws a flower at him, hence offering him a chance to experience what men call the Gypsy's Curse (... to obsessively love, crave, desire, need a woman because she's made you experience the greatest man/woman thrills you've ever known, or could hope to know -- combined with the feeling [sort of like the way heroin or opium are described] that you'll never feel this way again if she leaves you ... thus leaving you torn between feeling like you're either the earth's greatest stud or the world's most helpless child-about-to-abandoned-by-mommy -- the source of nearly all domestic violence).
The other major point of view in this opera belongs to Carmen. Carmen is a walking, talking, singing, dancing libido. She is also beautiful, which makes the fact that she is almost immaculately selfish all the more frightening. And admirable. Her innate honesty will not allow her to lie. Her need for independence will not allow her to back down to threats of any kind.
She wants Don José. He falls for her. He has her for a brief while. Conflicts arise. He has thrown over everything in his life for her. She meets Escamillo, a famous matador, when he stops by the local tavern and sings "The Toreador Song." She falls for him, he for her. She stops loving Don José. José stalks her. She remains defiant. He kills her, and sings the opera's last words, "Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!"
During the scenes where Don José fights to hold on to her, he argues, he demands, he threatens, he pleads, and he sings some of the most beautiful, heart-rending songs ever heard by the human ear. "Carmen" fans sit almost breathlessly waiting, hoping, all through the performance, for the moment when Don José will sing the flower song, where he tells Carmen of how he sat in jail, having sacrificed himself so she could escape imprisonment, looking at the flower she'd thrown at him, cherishing it more every day. How deeply he loves her.
In the end, those two points of view, that of the downhearted ruined country boy and that of the admirably honest, enchanting gypsy woman, dominate the opera. Everyone else, even those who get several solos (Escamillo the toreador, and Michaela, the sweet 'n' pure girl from back home), is secondary to these two great characters.
But ... but, what if ... I thought one night last June, what if Don José is not tragic. What if he's a nut? What if he's a typically abusive perpetrator of domestic violence? Like one of those stalkers who waits in the parking lot, a gun beside him, for his girl friend, or ex-wife, to get out of work so he can shoot her? Another case of "If I can't have you, no one can."
And what if Escamillo really loved Carmen? What if she was not just another woman to him. What if, for the first time in his life, after so many conquests (conquests? Hah! The other women threw themselves at him), he'd found the one woman who put his soul to rest?
And what if, just as true love came into his life, a tragic twist emerged to ruin his dream: a deranged ex-lover murdered the love of his life. Would that not be sad? Would it not be moving -- to see him again in late middle age, still trying to deal with the memories, trying not to be bitter, trying to retain whatever good had come to him from knowing her?
I decided to write a novel from Escamillo's point of view. It brewed and stewed within me all through the summer and fall. I decided to pretend that Carmen and Don José and Escamillo and Michaela and all the others had been real people and had received lots of tabloid coverage back in the 1870s. And that Georges Bizet had read those newspaper stories and had written his 1875 opera about them. And that, after avoiding the opera for a while, Escamillo, now-retired from the bullring, finally goes to see a production. I became very excited, and curious, to know what his reaction would be.
I started writing this novel on January 1st of this year. In two weeks I wrote two chapters, surprised by what was coming out of me.
Then I happened to re-meet Madame Célestine, the Carmen expert, one afternoon while I was out buying dinner wine. We had an interesting conversation.
To be continued ...