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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Running with Hemingway's bull, Part 2: A chance meeting with Mme Celestine.

A Chance meeting with Madame Celestine made me
wonder if I'd been a bit too impulsive about this
Escamillo thing.
            Appropriately enough, the cashier had just bagged my bottle of Rioja at the Flourtown wine store when the very person I needed to see, Madame Célestine, walked in. She's an expert on the opera "Carmen," and probably knows more than anyone about the character of Carmen herself. I'd just started writing a novel based on a twist I wanted to give that story.
            I paid for my wine and hurried over.
            After our mutual, respectful greetings, I asked her if she might be a consultant for my project. I wanted to rewrite "Carmen" from the torero, Escamillo's, point of view. I wanted to treat the original doomed hero, Don José, as a demented soul who'd killed the only woman Escamillo had ever loved. Yes: loved. He loved her. She wasn't just a pit stop on the Andalusian Trail for him. He adored her.
            Madame C is pleasant and polite at all times and she stood there with quiet aplomb, but with her mouth slightly open, and for a moment I thought I might have turned into a talking frog. I felt foolish, and possibly offensive, for messing with the great "Carmen" canon. But at least she hadn't walked away. Yet.
            I said, "I wondered if you knew of any other attempts to take this point of view?"
            "No, nothing like that. You're talking about quite a departure from the story."
            "It get's worse," I said, "I'm pretending that all the events in Bizet's storyline actually happened in 1870 in Seville. They became newspaper-scandal fodder. Then Bizet created the opera and it debuted in 1875. In my version, Escamillo resists seeing it for a while, but then goes to a performance. It repels him -- his life and love portrayed that way."
            Madame C held her faint smile, but furled her brow slightly, before saying, "Did you know that its 1875 debut happened in Paris?"
            "Oh," was all I managed.
            "And the opera did not come to Spain until the 1880s. 1881 in Barcelona and, I believe, 1887 in Madrid."
            "Oh-oh," I said.
            The Spanish, she told me, found the whole thing ludicrous, though the rest of the world -- Vienna, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, London, New York, even Philadelphia, was pretty taken with it by then.
            Oh no, the dreaded word "Research," breached my mind's horizon. Research: that awful, time-consuming, all-absorbing, sucking maelstrom that draws you down, down, down into your subject so far, so deep, there never comes an end, a time when you might break back to the surface and cry, "Enough! Enough already! I now know Everything! and can get on with my blankety-blank story!"
            "Ah," I said.
            "Where did you plan to have Escamillo see the opera?" Madame C said?
            "Uh? Well, eh ..." I stuttered, "He could possibly have heard so much about it that he traveled to another city to see it. That might help him slip in the back without being recognized. He'd probably feel some shame if caught seeming interested, so he'd want that anonymity."
            "That's possibly true," C granted me. "I have some very interesting material on the initial Spanish reaction to "Carmen." One particular essay, from the Cambridge Opera News might be of help. It's called, "Confronting Carmen Beyond the Pyrenees." I'll see if I can dig it up for you."
            "Oh," Thank you.
            "You realize that Escamillo is presented differently in each production of "Carmen," don't you?"
            "Yes, but I don't feel obliged by that. I want to write about a real person, a man who worked as a bullfighter. But bullfighting, the 'corrida,' was not his whole existence. He had family members. He had his own needs for the female of the species and not all those needs were physical. Perhaps the best way to think of him was the way we think of modern athletes -- physically gifted persons who are quite simple in some ways, but unexpectedly complex in other ways."
            "Do you know much about bullfighting? I suppose you'd have to learn something about that?"
            "Oh, yes, of course. That's on my to-do list."
            "And you've read the Mérimée novel version, I suppose?" I nodded yes. She continued, "In that version, the bullfighter's name was Lucas. Bizet changed it to Escamillo. And Lucas was a picador, not a matador. Bizet coined the word "toreador." It's never used by the Spanish." 
            My head was spinning in the familiar kind of whirl that said I'd once again bitten off more chorizo that I could chew. The most famous opera song in the world, "The Toreador Song," always sung so knowingly by everybody, is an ode to a non-existent occupational title!
            With a promise to help me when needed, Madame C glided away, my own personal Glinda/Billy Burke, with a shopping cart.
            Many weeks later, after reading many books about "corridas" and "toreros" and "traje de luces" and "ferias" and "veronicas," I finally dared take down and begin to read the one book I'd been most dreading: Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon."
            Was I man enough to enter Papa’s woodshed?
 To be continued....

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