Lillian Groag has a lot to say about the way Carmen should appear on stage. In fact, she has a lot to say about the way every thing and everyone should be and look on stage. That’s a very good thing.
Miss Lilli, as the cast and crew call her, is Director for more than 100 people for Opera Omaha’s production of Georges Bizet’s perennially popular opera, Carmen. This production will be a little different, however, than anything you may have seen previously by that title. It may be a little less, well, maybe the word is “nice”. According to Miss Lilli, Carmen is anything but “nice”. She is murderous and lustful. She is greedy. The people around her, including the children, are no different. Life is difficult. Life is dirty.
It sounds like Lillian Groag may be building a Carmen that is nearly timeless. Her Director’s Notes, posted below, give some insight into the thoughts behind her direction. Enjoy!
CARMEN DIRECTOR’S NOTES By Lillian Groag, Director
When certain operas become so familiar as to become part of our culture, a curious thing happens: we assume a knowledge of them that is far from accurate. Directors are not immune to this syndrome. The plots of the handful of operas that form our canon, through overexposure and indiscriminate production habits, become blurred and we end up with approximations of a story we actually don’t know all that well. How many of us are sure that Don Giovanni begins with the rape of Donna Anna and the murder of her father? In fact, according to Da Ponte’s libretto, we don’t really know what happened in Anna’s bedroom. The first time we see her she’s hanging on to Don Giovanni for dear life, trying to prevent him from leaving and, according to the words, it is the Commendatore who attacks Don Giovanni – who is unwilling to fight an old man – and not the other way around, getting himself killed in the process. And … just how aware are we that Butterfly, far from being a dewy-eyed innocent, is a Geisha, a professional (yes, at 15) and thus perfectly aware of the terms of marriage contracts with European men, a custom dating at least from the 17th century? Or that Mimi is a grisette returning to her previous client(s) after her Act III breakup with Rodolfo, which constitutes the reason for his constant jealousy? Or that our beloved “bohemians” are boys from very good families “slumming” for a while, allowances cut by furious parents, no doubt the fun and games of Act I blatantly advertising major classical educations. A future with the likes of Mimi and Musetta is as out of the question for them as that between Alfredo and Violetta. And … do we realize that it is actually the Ethiopians who are the aggressors and not the Egyptians in Aida? And so on.
Which brings us to our Carmen. Traditionally represented as a facsimile of Rita Hayworth in the eponymous movie, with inevitable red hair, puffy white sleeves off the shoulder (the only concession to gypsy slovenliness) and golden hoop earrings, she is thought of as a “free spirit” cavorting with a sort of wild and crazy band reminiscent of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, causing minimum damage and maximum fun, stomping out vague approximations of flamenco. And then she gets killed. Now this story clearly cannot be the one that created the scandal of its opening night (and the weeks that followed) or was that audience smoking something funny?
The truth is, red-haired gypsies abounding only in opera and Hollywood movies of the 50s, that Carmen’s crowd is a gang of cutthroats who would be garroted on sight, as she herself would, if found in their company. The troubling gypsy of Mérimée running about in stockings with holes in them and filthy red shoes dressed in a black shabby dress is lethal – as Micaela aptly notes. Her white-washing in our time is part of the many casualties of the “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” approach in which certain “ladies” have been depicted on the opera stage. Add Manon, Thais and Nedda among others, to the previous list. It’s this very attitude that traditionally patronizes opera libretti (you can hear the chuckles during the Saturday afternoon Met Opera Quizzes from participants who claim to be devoted to the medium) and so the evening, conveniently sanitized, and bringing nothing much to think on, is easily put aside as soon as we are done with the pretty music and make our mad dash to the parking lot lest our car should get away all on its own, like “Christine”, in the cult 70s horror film, and leave us stranded downtown to trudge our way home.
Now: why should we give our attention to this dismal story of gypsies and “payos” (Romani for non gypsies)? Well, the music is fantastic. It has been called the “perfect opera”, and to many of us, it is. But there is also a very good yarn to hold it up. A volatile young man of good family (it’s Don José, after all) finds himself in a god-forsaken garrison in a bad neighborhood of Seville, with a grade (equivalent to “corporal”) unworthy of his birth and station. There is a tobacco factory there and the “brunes cigarières” (so, mostly gypsies) have means of income other than the making of cigars and cigarettes during factory breaks. What is this young man doing in an old military outpost so far from home in Navarre, across country, up in beautiful Basque land? It turns out he’s killed a man already and has been presumably whisked away by his family in order to avoid incarceration or worse. His mother sends his forgiveness and a lifeline in the form of marriage to the lovely Micaela, but there remains no doubt that José Lizarrabengoa is a very violent man who, true to character, ends up hopelessly entangled with a woman who cohabits with thieves and murderers on the criminal fringes of society. In contemporary terms, she’d be a gang girl, body pierced and tattooed from head to toe, trafficking drugs across the border. Twice in the course of the opera José tries to get away (in Acts I and II) and twice something happens to prevent it. By Act III he is so deeply incriminated in her activities (army desertion and assault on a superior officer, just for starters) that his life is as good as lost. By Act IV he is delusional, a deranged stalker about to commit yet another crime. A typical story of sexual obsession and murder such as our fellow Americans watch every night on the TV tabloids. Their ratings of which are over the top, by the way. What’s so special about this one?
Well … Carmen herself. At the last possible moment, and just like Don Giovanni, this basically unpalatable protagonist (with the great music) attains enormous stature by throwing the gauntlet down at Death’s feet and daring it to take her. Of course, Death does. It always wins. But there is something about these two (Don Giovanni and Carmen) in their final stand, that makes them impressive and complete and sums up their claims to total freedom (an impossibility in society and to no good end in either case) and touches on that very human demand for “more life” – or as Philip Larkin puts it “this multi-petaled flower of being here”. Somehow, the naked recall of the Impossible Battle we all lose rings true for us in all its futility. We love Cyrano and Quixote especially because they are doomed to lose, and perhaps the battle cry of the Romantics in the near century between Giovanni and Carmen is as alive in the dirty gypsy girl as in the libertine aristocrat, both of whom wanted the world to belong to them. They were wrong, of course, but aren’t they rather grand on their final face-off with the ultimate Enemy, mano a mano, in the empty space of that dusty Plaza de Toros or in the sumptuous dining-room everyone else has fled, making a great big fuss, refusing to give an inch?