A “super” in the opera

Typically, the work I do for Utah Opera is completely behind the scenes – it’s my job to help fill the seats with people at Capitol Theatre, and I leave the stage work to the professionals. Carmen ended up being a completely difference experience for me though when Michelle Peterson, our Company Manager, asked if I’d be a super in Carmen. For those not familiar with the term, “super” pretty much means “extra” – someone who volunteers to walk around on the stage and act, usually carrying a spear or piece of furniture. Supers also don’t sing (although it’s hard not to hum along to the music in Carmen).

This wasn’t the first time she’d asked if I’d volunteer to do this. I was close to being in The Marriage of Figaro last March, but it was in the middle of our season subscription renewals (not to mention my birthday) and just bad timing. I wanted to do Don Pasquale in May (the cowboy costumes were pretty cool), but the director ended up just using the chorus and not needing many supers. When Michelle asked if I’d be in Carmen, it seemed like a great opera for me to make my debut on the Capitol Theatre stage. Not only is it the first opera I ever saw (my parents sat me down in front of the TV when I was seven or eight and had me watch the film version with Julia Migenes), but it is also one of the few operas out there where I already recognize the music and story. Because of that, being in it would be an opportunity to experience an opera I was already somewhat familiar with in a completely different way.

Never having done any real acting or stage work (unless you count Alki Middle School’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), I was amazed at how quickly the opera came together once the cast arrived. Everyone seemed to show up all ready to go. Just before Christmas, Michelle emailed out the rehearsal schedule. I wasn’t expecting much of a time commitment (there’s a reason why supers are often simply referred to as “spear carriers”), but I’ve ended up spending a good 15 to 20 hours at rehearsals for my 2 minutes of stage time. The 20 hours is nothing though compared with what some of the supers have to do. Since I decided only to be in the parade (I’m one of the matadors), I only had to be at rehearsals for Act 4. The supers who are soldiers also had to be had a lot more rehearsals than me.

One of the most interesting parts of being a super is getting a costume. The costumes made by our costume shop are beautiful. I went to a costume fitting a week or so before the dress rehearsal and was given my first lesson on how to put on tights (apparently, matadors wear pink tights!). I also got a blue bull fighter costume. After the first dress rehearsal, the costume shop decided that my costume wasn’t flashy enough, so I came back and was refitted into a new costume that is really cool. Not only am I the only bullfighter with tassels on my pants (my wife’s favorite part of the costume), but the detail on the cape and jacket is amazing. I think it looks pretty cool, even if it isn’t something I’d wear out every day.

Working with the cast and directors has also been great. Many of the supers in this particular opera are fathers of the kids in the chorus. A lot of others are sons, husbands, boyfriends, brothers, and friends of USUO employees or Utah Opera chorus members. Most of us are in an opera for the first time – some others have been being supers in operas for decades. It’s an entertaining group – which is good because we spend a lot of time in the basement waiting for our turn on the stage.

I was worried that I’d be nervous when we finally went out on opening night, but rather than having anxiety, I’ve been having a lot of fun on the stage. Luckily, I don’t have to do much more than walk down the stairs and wave to the mayor. But still, it’s fun to be part of this talented group of people. Everyone seems to love what they’re doing, and I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for an art form that I wasn’t extremely familiar with before I started working for the company. Being a super is a lot of work for very little glory, but it’s definitely an experience I’m glad I’ve had.

Here are some photos of how supers were used in Carmen:

Most of the soldiers in Carmen were supers. These are the guys who put in the really long hours.

Most of the soldiers in Carmen were supers. These are the guys who put in the really long hours at rehearsals.

The Mayor and his wife were also volunteer supers.

The Mayor and his wife were volunteer supers.

The parade in Carmen was another place that used a lot of supers.

The Act 4 parade in Carmen used a lot of supers.

Here are the supers who were Banderilleros.

Some of the supers were Banderilleros.

And the supers who were Picadors.

And others were Picadors.

And here are the Matadors. Im the one in the maroon costume.

And here are the Matadors. I'm the one in the maroon costume.

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Getting to Know New Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer

Getting to Know New Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer
1. Where are you from/raised?
Swiss.
Zambia—Africa born.
Went to school in Zambia, Ivory Coast, and then Switzerland
Musical education in Geneva, then Germany, Moscow
2. Where do you currently live?
Geneva, family and kids
3. What is your musical background?
Flute player in Geneva. Nicolet was principle flute for? Several jobs in humbola, Zurich, Munich, London. Spent 10 years as principal flutist in a chamber in south Europe
4. Do you have a favorite piece to play as a flutist?
I don’t play the flute any more, I stopped some years ago, all of a sudden, like an addicted heavy smoker… from one day to the other, but when I was a player, music by Bach has always been (and still is) the highest inspiration.
5. How did you become a conductor?
By accident. Never really thought of conducting until replacing a sick conductor. Did one performance for him, and then got a job to conduct in Switzerland.
First real job in Holland, Amsterdam, and BBC Wales—currently.
6. Where/when did you study conducting?
I am a self-taught person… but was very influenced by Harnoncourt and Abbado, when I was a flute player, playing for them…
7. Who is your favorite conductor?
All the conductors who can do things I can’t… so many conductors….
8. Who is your favorite composer?
Always the composer I studying at the moment… so just for this week it is Shostakovitch!
9. Do you listen to historical recordings when you prepare a new piece to conduct? Which conductors do you typically listen to?
I almost never listen to recordings to prepare, so if I do, I always try to find an interpretation done by old legendary maestri….
10. Do you have a favorite piece to conduct?
Same answer as question No 3, this week it is Shostakovitch Symphony No 10, the week after will be Schubert “Tragic Symphony” etc… etc…
11. Why are you interested in the Utah Symphony?
A reputation is going to be built. It’s presumptuous to leave a legacy before starting, but the idea is to leave a very creative group of musicians interested in creating something big every week. It’s a huge challenge to move and motivate this massive group, bring energy to the orchestra and make them interested in all types of repertoire.
12. What is your vision for the Utah Symphony? What do you hope to accomplish here?
Alive. Interested. Passionate. Involved. Creative. You can add many things, not only in programming, but the way to look at education and in lifting hope of the community. A new MD is hope, new energy and a new way of looking at things. I can bring a lot to the orchestra and they can bring a lot to me. The combined energy will create an unbeatable team—raising our level of performing. I want to bring new energy back—and share that with as many people, otherwise there’s no sense. The whole is fantastic.
If there is one area where there are no limits, it is sound. We will raise our passion and way of sitting on chairs.  We will be working on sounds—passion is to work on clarity, enlightening the sound. Believe in the power and the energy of sounds. In comparing sound with wind—if you walk out to the wind, you smile, feel and perceive all emotions differently. There’s a different way of hoping and thinking after a walk in the wind. Music is the same. Even with today’s technology, nothing can replace live music, the specific moment in a concert hall when you feel this energy and how important live music is for us in general.
I will also focus on French composers: Bréval, Debussy; classical composers: Beethoven and definitely Haydn—he’s the father of classical music. Any orchestra that can play Haydn can play anything very well. I will also focus on Charles Ives, Anton Bruckner, and Stravinsky.
I want like to record as much as possible—my strongest intention is to record. Recording is an artistic image and way to attract more conductors to use the Utah Symphony. I would also like Utah Symphony to start commissioning. An orchestra has a mission to create and to help active listening.  I’ll try to put in a few surprises. The orchestra not only a museum, but a modern art museum.
13. What excites you about being Salt Lake City?
We feel very much at home in Utah as in Switzerland.  The immensity of Salt Lake is bigger.  Like where Utah is big and close to the coast.  Love being in the nature. Feel very good in the city. My wife and I went hiking and used time to imagine ourselves as much as we could in the city. I am an avid skier—doesn’t hurt at all that the mountains are close to the city! I also run 3-4 times a week and can do it here.
In Salt Lake, there is something ready to start and you just need put the right natures and energies in the same line and things will develop. In America (course it’s a cliché), it’s an American dream that everything is possible—with a strong concept, you can move mountains, and with the energy in Utah in particular. Being a director in America is something I have wanted to happen in my life. The opportunity in Utah came at exactly the right time.
14. What are your non-musical hobbies?
Being with my family, having dinners with friends, going to our house in South of France, watching Roger Federer and the football in general on TV, trying to finish the books I am starting, and definitely finishing the runs I try to do three times a week (except the two coming weeks in Utah… too busy!….)

rr_fischer_o2_4335

1. Where are you from/raised?

  • Swiss.
  • Zambia—Africa born.
  • Went to school in Zambia, Ivory Coast, and then Switzerland
  • Musical education in Geneva, then Germany, Moscow

2. Where do you currently live? Geneva, with my family and kids

3. What is your musical background?

Flute player in Geneva.  I had several jobs in Humbola, Zurich, Munich, London. Spent 10 years as principal flutist in a chamber orchestra in Southern Europe

4. Do you have a favorite piece to play as a flutist?

I don’t play the flute any more, I stopped some years ago, all of a sudden, like an addicted heavy smoker… from one day to the other, but when I was a player, music by Bach has always been (and still is) the highest inspiration.

5. How did you become a conductor?

By accident. Never really thought of conducting until replacing a sick conductor. Did one performance for him, and then got a job to conduct in Switzerland.  My first real job was in Holland, Amsterdam, and BBC Wales—where I am currently.

6. Where/when did you study conducting?

I am a self-taught person… but was very influenced by Harnoncourt and Abbado, when I was a flute player, playing for them…

7. Who is your favorite conductor?

All the conductors who can do things I can’t… so many conductors….

8. Who is your favorite composer?

Always the composer I am studying at the moment… so just for this week it is Shostakovitch!

9. Do you listen to historical recordings when you prepare a new piece to conduct? Which conductors do you typically listen to?

I almost never listen to recordings to prepare, so if I do, I always try to find an interpretation done by old legendary maestri….

10. Do you have a favorite piece to conduct?

Same answer as before, this week it is Shostakovitch Symphony No 10, the week after will be Schubert “Tragic Symphony” etc… etc…

11. Why are you interested in the Utah Symphony?

A reputation is going to be built. It’s presumptuous to leave a legacy before starting, but the idea is to leave a very creative group of musicians interested in creating something big every week. It’s a huge challenge to move and motivate this massive group, bring energy to the orchestra and make them interested in all types of repertoire.

12. What is your vision for the Utah Symphony? What do you hope to accomplish here?

Alive. Interested. Passionate. Involved. Creative. You can add many things, not only in programming, but the way to look at education and in lifting hope of the community. A new MD is hope, new energy and a new way of looking at things. I can bring a lot to the orchestra and they can bring a lot to me. The combined energy will create an unbeatable team—raising our level of performing. I want to bring new energy back—and share that with as many people, otherwise there’s no sense. The whole is fantastic.

If there is one area where there are no limits, it is sound. We will raise our passion and way of sitting on chairs.  We will be working on sounds—passion is to work on clarity, enlightening the sound. Believe in the power and the energy of sounds. In comparing sound with wind—if you walk out to the wind, you smile, feel and perceive all emotions differently. There’s a different way of hoping and thinking after a walk in the wind. Music is the same. Even with today’s technology, nothing can replace live music, the specific moment in a concert hall when you feel this energy and how important live music is for us in general.

I will also focus on French composers: Bréval, Debussy; classical composers: Beethoven and definitely Haydn—he’s the father of classical music. Any orchestra that can play Haydn can play anything very well. I will also focus on Charles Ives, Anton Bruckner, and Stravinsky.

I want like to record as much as possible—my strongest intention is to record. Recording is an artistic image and way to attract more conductors to use the Utah Symphony. I would also like Utah Symphony to start commissioning. An orchestra has a mission to create and to help active listening.  I’ll try to put in a few surprises. The orchestra not only a museum, but a modern art museum.

13. What excites you about being in Salt Lake City?

We feel very much at home in Utah as in Switzerland.  The immensity of Salt Lake is bigger.  Like where Utah is big and close to the coast.  Love being in the nature. Feel very good in the city. My wife and I went hiking and used time to imagine ourselves as much as we could in the city. I am an avid skier—doesn’t hurt at all that the mountains are close to the city! I also run 3-4 times a week and can do it here.

In Salt Lake, there is something ready to start and you just need put the right natures and energies in the same line and things will develop. In America (course it’s a cliché), it’s an American dream that everything is possible—with a strong concept, you can move mountains, and with the energy in Utah in particular. Being a director in America is something I have wanted to happen in my life. The opportunity in Utah came at exactly the right time.

14. What are your non-musical hobbies? Being with my family, having dinners with friends, going to our house in South of France, watching Roger Federer and the football in general on TV, trying to finish the books I am starting, and definitely finishing the runs I try to do three times a week (except the two upcoming weeks in Utah… too busy!….)

See Thierry Fischer in action January 29 – 30! Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 will be on the program.

Learn even more about Thierry Fischer here.

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Carmen: Victim or Seductress?

Carmen: Victim or Seductress?
By Crystal Young-Otterstrom
Carmen – what an opera! From being universally scorned at its premiere to today being one of the top four most frequently performed operas in America, this work has run the entire gamut. Central to its mystique is its title character, the woman Carmen. Often dismissed as more antagonist than protagonist and “ruiner” of the innocent Don José, perception of this woman is nearly as diverse a debate as that about the pronunciation of potato. Is she evil? A seductress? Fate/death-obsessed (and hence parochial)? Sex addict? Free spirit? Liberated woman/feminist? Victim? Suicide?
It’s rather amazing that a fictional character could spark such debate. Geoges Bizet’s librettists mostly adapted their story from the novella Carmen by Propser Mérimée who in turn was influenced by the narrative poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin. As any quick google search will tell you, the work was commissioned and premiered by the family-friendly Opéra-Comique of Paris despite much protestations from Adolphe de Leuven, the co-administrator of the Opéra-Comique. He eventually resigned in protest. As recalled by one of Carmen’s co-librettists, Ludovic Halévy:
“It was Bizet who, in 1873, had the idea of extracting an opera libretto from the admirable novella of Mérimée…I went to see Leuven and he actually interrupted me after the first sentence. ‘Carmen! Mérimée ‘s Carmen! Isn’t she killed by her lover? And these bandits, gypsies, and girls working in a cigar factory! At the Opéra-Comique! The family theater, the theater of wedding parties … You’ll frighten our audience away. That’s impossible.’ I insisted and explained to Mr. Leuven that ours was a Carmen, to be sure, but a toned-down, softened Carmen, and that we had actually introduced some characters perfectly in keeping with the style of the opéra-comique, especially a young girl of great chastity and innocence. There were indeed gypsies, but of the humorous variety (they really weren’t). And Carmen’s death, the inevitable catastrophe at the end, would be sneaked in somehow at the conclusion of a lively and brilliant act, in broad daylight, on a holiday filled with processions, dances, and gay fanfares. Mr. Leuven acquiesced, but after a prolonged struggle. And when I left his office, he said: ‘Please try not to let her die. Death at the Opéra-Comique. That’s never happened before, do you hear, never. Don’t let her die, I implore you, my dear child.’”
Thankfully, Bizet himself didn’t allow Carmen to become so watered down as to loose its shock value. Its premiere was every bit as scandalous to the Opéra-Comique audience as de Leuven had feared, and was shut down after a mere 48 performances. Indeed, Bizet himself passed away from a sudden heart attack exactly three months after the premiere, convinced that he was an eternal failure. Luckily, the Vienna Opera had committed to produce the opera prior to Bizet’s passing and its production, launched in October 1875, proved to be a huge success.  It is revered and worshiped by today’s audiences and there are books and books by composers and thinkers  singing its praises.
It even spawned an entirely new genre of opera. Although such a story might not seem entirely realistic to today’s audiences, to Bizet’s contemporaries, it was entirely too close to home, too real, too current. It spanned an entirely new genre in opera, verismo, i.e. people in the present living normal lives (in contrast to being gods or royalty). In a sense, it was the reality television of the nineteenth century.
The story is essentially this: Don José, an inexperienced and “innocent” soldier from the country meets an exotic gypsy woman, Carmen, who has been disturbing the peace. In order to avoid capture, she seduces Don José and escapes. Through a series of events she is then responsible for his rejection of his naïve fiancé, Micaëla (billed by even the librettist as the antithesis to Carmen), his mutiny against his boss, and his leaving the army to join her band of smugglers. She then gets bored and moves onto the bullfighter Escamillo leading Don José to murder Carmen out of jealousy.
Is it really all her fault though? The feminist music historian Catherine Clement in her book Opera: The Undoing of Women  laments Carmen’s tragic death and the death of most other opera heroines as victims of oppression by men. They are helplessly tossed about by the whims of their love objects. All except for Carmen, of course. According to Clement, Carmen must die because she refuses to acquiesce to Don José: “She says no. No again. No! She does not want him, does not love him anymore. He is bleating and he is dangerous, he repeats over and over: ‘There is still time … There is time to save yourself and to save me with you.’ Ah, here is the naked truth: what has to be saved is the man’s image, damaged by pure and simple jealousy, that can bring on all the deaths in the world.”
On the other hand, another scholar, Peter Conrad , attributes her death as a near suicide as a result of her superstitions. Having earlier forecast her death through a game of cards, she resigns herself to her fate, and eggs Don José to kill her. Indeed, some singers play the role so that Carmen walks into Don José’s knife because he is not even man enough to kill her.
Regardless of how in control she is of her fate, the question remains, is she “a sluttish femme fatale who destroyed a decent, upright soldier” or an “honest … and liberated woman murdered by a maternally dominated psychopath” (Rodney Milnes, music critic). The answer, in many ways, lies with Don José via looking closely at the opera’s source, Mérimée’s novella.
At the beginning of the story, Don José is already on the lamb, having killed a man during an argument resulting from a game of paume (hand tennis). He then runs away to Seville to join the army. From the outset, he is not quite so innocent, as he has already killed a man, is hot-tempered, and often acts irrationally. The opera does not mention this detail, although it is alluded to in Don José and Micaëla’s Act I duet: Don José’s mother writes in the letter delivered by Micaëla, “and tell him that his mother dreams of him day and night. She’s pardoned him, and prays he will always do what’s right.” His mother has pardoned him for Murder #1.
Murder #2 is again the result of his temper. After spending a month in jail because he allowed Carmen to escape, Don José kills his superior Zuniga after he orders Don José to stay away from Carmen. Of course in the opera, murder #2 is watered down by the opera’s librettists to Don José temporarily rendering Zuniga unconscious. Either way, Don José is compelled to join Carmen’s band of smugglers. In the novella, it is here that murder #3 occurs: Don José kills a gypsy, Garcia the One-eyed, in an argument over cards. After all this rage and death, it’s no wonder Carmen gets bored! As in the opera, Carmen then moves her affections to a toreador and is murdered by Don José in a jealous rage.
The book certainly gives more insight into the character of Don José and makes his murder of Carmen more of a result of a pattern of emotional overreaction than an out-of-the-blue act of passion by a simple country boy driven to insanity by a devilish gypsy. However it is Mérimée’s own preface that is the most damning statement of all of Carmen: “Woman as a whole is bitter. She possesses but two redeeming moments: one in bed and the other at death.”
Nevertheless, neither character, in both the novella and opera, are truly innocent creatures. Carmen’s murder is not the result of her infidelity, flirtation with, or abuse of Don José. She does not die simply for being a man-eater. It is also not the consequence of Don José’s propensity to kill people when they don’t do what he wants. Perhaps the tragic destiny of both main characters is the result of war, of the brutal battle between the sexes that Nietzsche deems the heart of the opera. He exclaimed the following upon seeing the opera for the twentieth time: “The love whose means is war, whose very essence is the mortal hatred between the sexes! I know no case in which the tragic irony, which constitutes the kernel of love, is expressed with such severity, or in so terrible a formula, as in the last cry of Don José with which the work ends: “Yes, it is I who have killed her,/ I — my adored Carmen!”
What do you think of Carmen? Is she the owner of her fate, the first great opera heroine to take control of her destiny, to speak out against men, or is Don José passionate act simply a result of her constant torment and flirtation? Does she ‘deserve’ her destiny? Decide for yourself while enjoying one of the greatest operas of all time.

Carmen – what an opera! From being universally scorned at its premiere to today being one of the top four most frequently performed operas in America, this work has run the entire gamut. Central to its mystique is its title character, the woman Carmen. Often dismissed as more antagonist than protagonist and “ruiner” of the innocent Don José, perception of this woman is nearly as diverse a debate as that about the pronunciation of potato. Is she evil? A seductress? Fate/death-obsessed (and hence parochial)? Sex addict? Free spirit? Liberated woman/feminist? Victim? Suicide?

It’s rather amazing that a fictional character could spark such debate. Geoges Bizet’s librettists mostly adapted their story from the novella Carmen by Propser Mérimée who in turn was influenced by the narrative poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin. As any quick google search will tell you, the work was commissioned and premiered by the family-friendly Opéra-Comique of Paris despite much protestations from Adolphe de Leuven, the co-administrator of the Opéra-Comique. He eventually resigned in protest. As recalled by one of Carmen’s co-librettists, Ludovic Halévy:

“It was Bizet who, in 1873, had the idea of extracting an opera libretto from the admirable novella of Mérimée…I went to see Leuven and he actually interrupted me after the first sentence. ‘Carmen! Mérimée ‘s Carmen! Isn’t she killed by her lover? And these bandits, gypsies, and girls working in a cigar factory! At the Opéra-Comique! The family theater, the theater of wedding parties … You’ll frighten our audience away. That’s impossible.’ I insisted and explained to Mr. Leuven that ours was a Carmen, to be sure, but a toned-down, softened Carmen, and that we had actually introduced some characters perfectly in keeping with the style of the opéra-comique, especially a young girl of great chastity and innocence. There were indeed gypsies, but of the humorous variety (they really weren’t). And Carmen’s death, the inevitable catastrophe at the end, would be sneaked in somehow at the conclusion of a lively and brilliant act, in broad daylight, on a holiday filled with processions, dances, and gay fanfares. Mr. Leuven acquiesced, but after a prolonged struggle. And when I left his office, he said: ‘Please try not to let her die. Death at the Opéra-Comique. That’s never happened before, do you hear, never. Don’t let her die, I implore you, my dear child.'”

Thankfully, Bizet himself didn’t allow Carmen to become so watered down as to loose its shock value. Its premiere was every bit as scandalous to the Opéra-Comique audience as de Leuven had feared, and was shut down after a mere 48 performances. Indeed, Bizet himself passed away from a sudden heart attack exactly three months after the premiere, convinced that he was an eternal failure. Luckily, the Vienna Opera had committed to produce the opera prior to Bizet’s passing and its production, launched in October 1875, proved to be a huge success. [The Viennese version replaced the spoken dialogue of the French version with sung recitative written in the style of Bizet. The sung version is actually still the most common version performed today. Tonight, you will hear the original French version with spoken dialogue although much of the dialogue has been cut.]  It is revered and worshiped by today’s audiences and there are books and books by composers and thinkers  singing its praises [Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Nietzsche each saw over 20 performances of the work. Tchaikovsky foretold that Carmen would become the most popular opera in the world].

It even spawned an entirely new genre of opera. Although such a story might not seem entirely realistic to today’s audiences, to Bizet’s contemporaries, it was entirely too close to home, too real, too current. It spanned an entirely new genre in opera, verismo, i.e. people in the present living normal lives (in contrast to being gods or royalty). In a sense, it was the reality television of the nineteenth century.

The story is essentially this: Don José, an inexperienced and “innocent” soldier from the country meets an exotic gypsy woman, Carmen, who has been disturbing the peace. In order to avoid capture, she seduces Don José and escapes. Through a series of events she is then responsible for his rejection of his naïve fiancé, Micaëla (billed by even the librettist as the antithesis to Carmen), his mutiny against his boss, and his leaving the army to join her band of smugglers. She then gets bored and moves onto the bullfighter Escamillo leading Don José to murder Carmen out of jealousy.

Is it really all her fault though? The feminist music historian Catherine Clement in her book Opera: The Undoing of Women laments Carmen’s tragic death and the death of most other opera heroines as victims of oppression by men. They are helplessly tossed about by the whims of their love objects. All except for Carmen, of course. According to Clement, Carmen must die because she refuses to acquiesce to Don José: “She says no. No again. No! She does not want him, does not love him anymore. He is bleating and he is dangerous, he repeats over and over: ‘There is still time … There is time to save yourself and to save me with you.’ Ah, here is the naked truth: what has to be saved is the man’s image, damaged by pure and simple jealousy, that can bring on all the deaths in the world.”

On the other hand, another scholar, Peter Conrad , attributes her death as a near suicide as a result of her superstitions. Having earlier forecast her death through a game of cards, she resigns herself to her fate, and eggs Don José to kill her. Indeed, some singers play the role so that Carmen walks into Don José’s knife because he is not even man enough to kill her.

Regardless of how in control she is of her fate, the question remains, is she “a sluttish femme fatale who destroyed a decent, upright soldier” or an “honest … and liberated woman murdered by a maternally dominated psychopath” (Rodney Milnes, music critic). The answer, in many ways, lies with Don José via looking closely at the opera’s source, Mérimée’s novella.

At the beginning of the story, Don José is already on the lamb, having killed a man during an argument resulting from a game of paume (hand tennis). He then runs away to Seville to join the army. From the outset, he is not quite so innocent, as he has already killed a man, is hot-tempered, and often acts irrationally. The opera does not mention this detail, although it is alluded to in Don José and Micaëla’s Act I duet: Don José’s mother writes in the letter delivered by Micaëla, “and tell him that his mother dreams of him day and night. She’s pardoned him, and prays he will always do what’s right.” His mother has pardoned him for Murder #1.

Murder #2 is again the result of his temper. After spending a month in jail because he allowed Carmen to escape, Don José kills his superior Zuniga after he orders Don José to stay away from Carmen. Of course in the opera, murder #2 is watered down by the opera’s librettists to Don José temporarily rendering Zuniga unconscious. Either way, Don José is compelled to join Carmen’s band of smugglers. In the novella, it is here that murder #3 occurs: Don José kills a gypsy, Garcia the One-eyed, in an argument over cards. After all this rage and death, it’s no wonder Carmen gets bored! As in the opera, Carmen then moves her affections to a toreador and is murdered by Don José in a jealous rage.

The book certainly gives more insight into the character of Don José and makes his murder of Carmen more of a result of a pattern of emotional overreaction than an out-of-the-blue act of passion by a simple country boy driven to insanity by a devilish gypsy. However it is Mérimée’s own preface that is the most damning statement of all of Carmen: “Woman as a whole is bitter. She possesses but two redeeming moments: one in bed and the other at death.”

Nevertheless, neither character, in both the novella and opera, are truly innocent creatures. Carmen’s murder is not the result of her infidelity, flirtation with, or abuse of Don José. She does not die simply for being a man-eater. It is also not the consequence of Don José’s propensity to kill people when they don’t do what he wants. Perhaps the tragic destiny of both main characters is the result of war, of the brutal battle between the sexes that Nietzsche deems the heart of the opera. He exclaimed the following upon seeing the opera for the twentieth time: “The love whose means is war, whose very essence is the mortal hatred between the sexes! I know no case in which the tragic irony, which constitutes the kernel of love, is expressed with such severity, or in so terrible a formula, as in the last cry of Don José with which the work ends: ‘Yes, it is I who have killed her,/ I — my adored Carmen!'”

What do you think of Carmen? Is she the owner of her fate, the first great opera heroine to take control of her destiny, to speak out against men, or is Don José passionate act simply a result of her constant torment and flirtation? Does she ‘deserve’ her destiny? Decide for yourself while enjoying one of the greatest operas of all time.

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