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