Friday, September 23, 2011

CARMEN: Smoking at the Opera

Carmen may have been the first (unwitting) advertisement for smoking cigarettes.

Situating Carmen as an employee of a cigarette factory was entirely plausible--the cigarette industry in Seville has a centuries-old history--and having Carmen make her entrance cigarette in hand immediately established her as the self-possessed, tradition-be-damned woman that she was. (Photo, above, of Geraldine Farrar from the 1915 film.)

But how could Carmen’s creators have ever known that their decision to put a cigarette in the hand of their desirable leading lady, offering cigarette smoking a certain sex appeal, would be an idea that films and advertising would use forevermore? Just the other day, tobacco researchers in the UK called for tighter control of how films represent smoking; The Independent had the story.

When Carmen arrives on the scene in Act I, with the other factory workers after their siesta, the workers, or “cigarette girls,” as they are often called, sing the praises of “la fumée,” likening it to the intangible quality of a “lover’s sweet words”:
In the air, our eyes follow the smoke.
Watch it rise towards heaven,
smelling sweetly.
It billows around your head
and gently carries you away.
A lover’s sweet words--they’re smoke!
Their passions and speeches--smoke!
And the guys who show up to watch them every day just eat it up:
Look at them, so brazen, so flirtatious...
Each of them with a cigarette between her teeth...
At the Vietnam National Opera in Hanoi, earlier this year, the curtain rose to let these men get a glimpse of the cigarette girls at work inside the factory for the smoking chorus:

But like any love affair--whether with a temptress like Carmen, a group of men outside a factory ogling the women who work inside, or a tobacco product--it gets complicated.

In this case, the complications--state tobacco laws, city building codes--manifest themselves more in the tasks and jobs of the props department than the storyline. In Seattle Opera's current production, Carmen will still be smoking, an act that may either attract or repulse you, depending on your point of view. But she won’t be smoking tobacco.

Today, the women’s chorus smokes “Puff Cigarettes,” which the props department purchases at a magic store in Pike Place Market. The factory workers will be “smoking” the prop-cigarette, a convincing replica, replete with brown filter, red sparkles and foil at the tip, and powder (or “smoke”). The puff you see is produced when they blow into the cigarette. (The Seattle Opera Chorus doesn't inhale!)

If we look back a few Seattle Opera productions, the story was different. In the 1970s, the props master went out and bought a carton of Marlboros (unless there was a request for a different brand or for clove cigarettes). Health or vocal chord risks notwithstanding, the chorus smoked the real thing onstage, and patrons and staff could partake themselves in the lobby and backstage.

In spite of Carmen’s timelessness, times have changed.

Our artists relations manager, for instance, thanks his lucky stars that he no longer has to navigate travel agencies to get singers on non-smoking flights back to their far-flung homes. And it’s interesting to note that four years ago, the cigarette factory in Seville shut its doors. The New York Times covered the story.

What do YOU think? Does the cigarette in Carmen's mouth make her sexy, or the opposite? What are your smoking-in-the-theater stories and/or memories?

Post by Jessica Murphy


  1. Smoking is no longer allowed in opera houses. When I got ejected out of it, it was a social blunder for me. So I decided to enroll in the quit smoking sydney program.

  2. They are pretty strict with this kind of thing these days. I've heard they won't even allow the much safer e cig liquid either - especially in crowded theaters.

  3. I will have to disagree with Robert on that one. I watched opera recently and they use cartomizers as a substitute. Its not a threat to others that will inhale the smoke and it makes the scene look realistic.

  4. Smoking in theater will just give the audience the idea that smoking isn’t that bad. I’m sure cosmetic dentists would also disagree with smoking at the opera, especially some of the artists use to sing at the opera and smoking can lead to some oral problems which can also damage their voices.

  5. No offense meant to all the woman who smokes out there but, I don't really find them sexy when they are smoking. Also, I haven't got the chance to enter any theater that allows smoking inside it.

  6. Is there a viewer discretion before the show? I'm not against smoking and people that smoke, but seeing a woman smoke in front of the audience like its normal is not a good example to the young ones.

  7. There should be a disclaimer on posters and tickets. If its possible then the scene must be cut even if its necessary to the storyline.

  8. I don't have any issues with smokers. What I detest about smokers aside from their non consideration of nearby people inhaling their second hand smoke but some extinguish their cigarettes by pinching it against a furniture - a wooden furniture at that! I'd rather pick up the cigarette butt lying on the floor, stamped by foot than think on how to get rid of the cigarette burns on my table or chair.

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