Thursday, September 1, 2011

Too Much Sex & Violence at the Opera?

In just a few weeks, rehearsals will begin for Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of Bizet’s fiery Carmen—an opera that has seduced audiences worldwide with its string of incredibly memorable tunes, and a very sexy title character. (Right, costume design by Heidi Zamora for the title character.)

So sexy, in fact, that Carmen—a cigarette-smoking temptress, the original femme fatale, who casually toys with the affections of men—shocked audiences at the Opéra-Comique in Paris at the 1875 premiere. In one of the first reviews, publication Paris La Patrie described Carmen as “a savage; half gypsy, half Andalusian; sensual, mocking, shameless; believing neither in God nor in the Devil … she is the veritable prostitute of the gutter and the crossroads.”

“A plague on these females vomited from hell!” opined Paris Le Siècle. “Ingenious orchestral details...cannot express the uterine frenzies of Mlle. Carmen.”

Carmen opens on October 15, and it will be the 8th time Seattle Opera has produced it. (Check out our Facebook page for a photo retrospective of our past Carmens.) Earlier this week, looking through our archives, we came across audience critiques of our 1995 production that sounded fascinatingly similar to reviews of Carmen from 120 years earlier. By Seattle Opera’s own admission, the 1995 production was an “R-rated Carmen for adults.” In a column for the Seattle Times that year, Melinda Bargreen wrote: “A production such as Seattle Opera’s current Carmen, set in Franco’s Spain in the 1950s and heavy on the shock value, is a jolting reminder that this opera is about more than picturesque gypsies.” (Bargreen goes into more detail in her official review of the production.)

Vinson Cole (Don José) and Graciela Araya (Carmen) in Seattle Opera's 1995 production of Carmen.
Photo by Gary Smith

So controversial was the ’95 production that the Seattle Times set aside space, two Sundays in a row, for several impassioned letters to the editor.

“This Carmen exudes violence and vulgarity,” wrote one Seattle Times reader. “…Of what value other than tasteless titillation is it? I would be ashamed to take my mother, and afraid to take my child. I don’t think this was what Bizet had in mind.”

“Some of the silly antics were unbelievable,” wrote another outraged reader. “And the tavern scene? It is what is being given to us on TV that we abhor so much: guns, sex.”

And from yet another reader: “Well! Well! Did you happen to hear that terrible rumbling sound the other night at about 8 p.m.? It was Bizet turning over in his grave!!! … Tasteful? I should say not! It was repulsive! … Let’s keep everything in its place, and leave the operas the way the composers intended.”

From left to right: Graciela Araya (Carmen), Paul Gudas (Dancaïre), Kathryn Garber (Mercédès), Marc Acito (Remendado), and Dana Johnson (Frasquita) in Seattle Opera's 1995 production of Carmen.
Photo by Gary Smith

In response, the Seattle Times asked readers to participate in a telephone poll, and pick one of two statements: “Bravo, Seattle Opera!” or “Shame on you, Seattle Opera!” (The bravos won, 672 to 515.) And the following week, theater critic Misha Berson wrote a column defending Carmen, and bringing some historical perspective to the mix. “It is historically myopic to accuse anyone of ruining Carmen by making it sexy and violent,” she wrote. “If Bizet had wanted to match his glorious music to a fairy tale, he would have done so. Instead, he pushed the envelope.”

In a final batch of letters to the editor, a Seattle Times reader agreed with Berson’s take.

This opera is not about colorful gypsies and animal husbandry; it is about lust and murder.

For those offended by this Carmen, I suggest they read (and understand) the librettos of other popular operas that they have been ignorantly enjoying. They will find infanticide (Il Trovatore), incest (Siegfried), adultery and murder most foul (Rigoletto), fornication (La bohème), guns (Tosca), child abuse (Hansel and Gretel), poisoning (Simon Boccanegra), blatant sexuality, nudity and murder (Salome), and on and on. This is the reason we enjoy operas; that and the beautiful music.

Indeed, the plots of our operas this season feature drug addiction and murder (Porgy and Bess), sexual obsession, bullfighting, and more murder (Carmen), crazed hordes razing cities to the ground, lust, treachery, vengeance, and even more murder (Attila), and bigamy and suicide (Madama Butterfly). Only in Orphée et Eurydice do they live happily ever after...and even that happy ending is wishful thinking on the part of the Enlightenment (the original myth has an ending that's extremely gruesome, even for myth). But aren't these extreme experiences the very ones that are worth singing about?


  1. "No one write songs about the ones that comes easy." The best and most loved stories in the world are ones with conflicts that ranges from intense emotional struggles to murder, seduction, and betrayal. Speaking for myself, I feel that reading or watching stories without a decent enough conflict makes it not worth watching or reading.

    By the way, Carmen is my favorite opera for this reason - its raw portrayal of humanity.

  2. Hallo, SeaOp bloghgers!
    I was happy to read that a majority, though slight, did approve of the 1995 SeaOp "Carmen", but was surprised to read the comments of the disapprovers!! I had no idea Seattlites in 1995 could have been soooo prude!!
    Toi, toi, toi for SeaOp's 2011 "Carmen"!! Sorry I'll miss it, but we do have in Schwerin a very sexy "Carmen" als Tanztheater (Modern Dance) in our repertory here in Schwerin, Germany -- a great place to visit!!
    Win H.

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