Scandalous 'Carmen' revisited

Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2008

What disgusts audiences in one century can delight audiences in another. Perhaps no other artistic work illustrates this point better than Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen."

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"'I won't mince words: 'Carmen' is a flop, a disaster,'" says Juneau Symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett, quoting a review of the opera's opening night in 1875. Pickett shared the review during a talk about the historical context of "Carmen" on Jan. 25 at the University of Alaska Southeast.

"'The music goes on and on. ... And the play - that's not a play! ... It's a crime, do you hear me? A crime!'" Pickett finishes reading as his lecture audience chuckles.

"A lot has changed," Pickett adds.

Pickett will guide the Juneau Symphony through a concert version of the famed opera on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 2 and 3, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. And while the augmented seconds of Carmen's fate leitmotif, which Bizet sprinkles throughout his masterpiece, may not cause the scandal they did in 19th century Paris, Pickett says Juneau audiences will be able to appreciate the music to this classic love story

"It's such a great piece of music," Pickett said. "It's so exciting and romantic. It's a hit. It's a proven hit show."

At least it became a hit in the 20th century. Since its debut, "Carmen" has become the fourth most produced opera in North America, Pickett said.

When "Carmen" debuted it originally scandalized audiences because its title character was a Gypsy, Pickett said.

"Gypsies weren't to be trusted," he said. "Women weren't suppose to dance for men. They could dance with them, but you couldn't dance for men. The story is also shocking: Carmen is little more than a prostitute, and Don Jose is a soldier that loses his honor and disgraced - a big deal back then.

"Operas weren't about 'lesser' people," Pickett added. "They were about gods, fantastical beasts, not some Gypsy."

But the realistic tone Bizet took has inspired American operas and helped "Carmen" remain very popular to this day. Some opera critics have even suggested that "Carmen" should be the first opera people are exposed to because of its accessible plot and memorable music.

"It was the first opera that my parents took me to," Pickett said. "I was 7 at the time, and I'm sure they weren't thinking, 'Oh, this immoral woman,' I think they were thinking about the music."

Pickett isn't bothered by the loss of old 19th century notions.

"The exotic to the Parisians is the catchy to us," he said. "We're exposed to so much music, and so many ideas, that the exotic goes to the wayside, which is fine, because the dramatic gets important.

"Throw away the morality tale because it doesn't make sense to us: 'Don't associate with Gypsies or you'll ruin your life?'" Pickett added. "It's about human emotion and people going through it, and that's what is great about it ... and the music."

Juneau audiences may be familiar with Carmen and her fiery ways due to a production by the Juneau Lyric Opera a few years back. But this production focuses more on the music.

"The simple fact of the matter is that there isn't a music pit big enough to do a huge staging in Juneau," Pickett said. "To get the real, big sound, we have to put everything on the JDHS stage, and we're going all the way with the full choir and the full score."

But Pickett says there will be some staging.

"After all, Don Jose has to stab Carmen."

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