Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Cinematic Lives of Carmen

From The Simpsons episode "Trip to the Opera."

By Julie Hubbert

A Seattle native who grew up attending Seattle Opera, Hubert is an associate professor of music history at the School of Music at the University of South Carolina where she also teaches in the Film and Media Studies Department. This fall, with the help of a NEH Fellowship, she will complete a book on music in films from the New Hollywood Era. 

What do Nietzsche and Bart Simpson have in common? It’s not a trick question. In fact, the answer reveals a hidden collaboration that has shaped the reception of this opera for over a century. The answer is Carmen. Nietzsche loved Carmen, although this admiration was certainly colored by misogyny and his growing contempt for Wagner. Bart Simpson’s connection to Carmen, however, is equally compelling and perhaps even more complex. In the second episode of the animated series, after Bart cheats on an IQ test, his mother Marge rewards him with a night at the opera. While there, Bart and his father Homer delightfully skewer opera conventions (a soprano with a healthy appetite does end the opera), but they also display an intimate knowledge of the music, especially when Bart sings the time-honored contrafactum of the Toreador’s Song: “Toreador, please don’t spit on the floor. Please use a cuspidor, that’s what it’s for.”

Early 1900s: The Silent Films 
The International Movie Database (IMDb) counts 47 film versions of Carmen, but scholars, who include French, Spanish, and African language productions, put the number well over 80. Bart’s sing-a-long in The Simpsons, in fact, is a delightful reprise of one of the earliest Carmen films, Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen (1916). If one prizes parody, and I do, Chaplin’s film is terrific for the way it recasts Carmen as a screen vamp, but also for the way it satirizes the witlessness of men who fall for such seductresses. Chaplin’s Don José (hilariously renamed Darn Hosiery) reminds us of how essential the so-called virtuous man is to the construction of the unvirtuous woman and raises the question: if men could just keep their pants zipped, would there be a Carmen?

Chaplin’s parody, however, is also a thoughtful homage, a shot-for-shot remake at times, of Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen (1915) of the year before. Both were part of the first “battle of the Carmens,” with DeMille’s production claiming the high ground by casting Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar in the title role. A month later director Raoul Walsh sought a steamier performance and gave the role to legendary stage actress Theda Bera. DeMille was not the first to try to elevate film by connecting it to opera or to enriching the silent screen with the implied sound of an opera singer. Surviving scores for the live accompaniment for both films relied on Bizet’s music, but Ernst Lubitsch had the final word. His Carmen (1918), arguably the first fully cinematic version, featured neither singer nor thespian, but one of the greatest movie stars of silent era, Pola Negri.  

Promotional images and stills for Burlesque on Carmen.

The 1940s: Post-War Tensions
The silent Carmens were only the beginning of a very long conversation that has existed between Mérimée’s novella, Bizet’s opera, and film. Film Carmens were made sporadically throughout the 1930s, but a cluster of post-war Carmens made the femme fatale popular again. Or rather, post-war politics and issues of racial equality in the U.S. made Carmen relevant again. Here Carmen’s sexuality is explained not as an excess of personality but as a feature of ethnicity. In both Mérimée’s and Bizet’s works, Carmen is an exotic outsider, a "gypsy" whose coupling with the Basque Don José is very near an act of miscegenation. This is not exactly Oscar Hammerstein’s reading. In fact, one of the criticisms of his remake of Bizet’s opera into the Broadway musical Carmen Jones in 1943 for an all-Black cast is that it erased the ethnic and racial tension in Mérimée’s original. Although some of that tension is preserved in the linguistic colloquialisms, the “dis” and “dat” that Hammerstein carefully inserted only into the songs and nowhere else in the dialogue. These fissures were uncomfortable in 1943 and, even more so, in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education and Otto Preminger’s film version of the musical. 

Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, as film historian Jeff Smith points out, the all-Black cast oddly maintained the fantasy of “separate but equal” and was a strange throwback to the segregated race films of the 1920s and 30s. But it starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte and broke racial barriers when Dandridge became the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her Carmen. Racial politics also colored the reception of the film not only because Preminger was having an affair with Dandridge but because he insisted on re-voicing both leads. Dandridge and Belafonte were established popular singers, but because of the range and vocal demands of Bizet’s music, Preminger dubbed them with opera singers, Belafonte with the young, African-American tenor LeVern Hutcherson, but Dandridge controversially with a young white opera student named Marilyn Horne.

The film is often credited with helping to desegregate not only Hollywood but the opera house as well. As opera scholar Susan McClary noted, Dandridge inspired the rise of the Black Carmen which propelled Leontyne Price to fame in the 1964 with a recording of Carmen and Grace Bumbry to acclaim in Karajan’s filmed Carmen in 1967.

A still from the 1954 film Carmen Jones. 
The 1980s: The Feminist Carmen 
Bizet’s heirs never liked Hammerstein’s musical version of the opera and blocked screenings of Preminger’s Carmen Jones in France until 1981 when Bizet’s opera finally entered public domain. That event may have triggered another rash of Carmen films, although the pressing political issue of feminism, which in the U.S. peaked with the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982, might also have also prompted it. In 1983 and 1984 no less than four film Carmens appeared, including Carlos Saura’s flamenco Carmen, Francesco Rosi’s Carmen, Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen, and Jean-Luc Goddard’s Prenom: Carmen. Within this group, Rosi’s Carmen stands out for offering a literal reading of Bizet’s opera and one of the most influential recontextualizations of Carmen. Rosi's is not the only film to reclaim Carmen as Spanish rather than French, but it is one of the few to authenticate Carmen within a community. Some of this, Dr. McClary rightfully points out, is accomplished by casting American Julia Migenes Johnson in the title role. Her light soprano has very little of the deep throated sultriness that most mezzos bring to the role. But Rosi also recasts Carmen not as a monstrous seductress, but as a daughter, a part of a community where athletic dancing and sharp verbal skills among women are prized, even commonplace. This Carmen dances with one of the neighborhood’s grandfathers, whose elegantly nimble and economical flamenco skills are a better and more enjoyable match for her than the stiff yet passionately-voiced Don José (Placido Domingo). Within this film’s community Carmen is not the monstrous, exotic outsider; Don José is.

A poster for Carmen: A Hip Hopera.

The 2000s: MTV and More 
In today’s mashup culture, Kip Collin’s MTV Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Beyoncé Knowles and Mekhi Phifer from 2001 is noteworthy for its attempt to update not just Carmen but Carmen Jones. Beyoncé’s ability to command our attention visually as well as sonically, and to suggest the feminism that would eventually dominate her stunning visual album Lemonade (2016), make for compelling viewing. The two prominent post-colonial films of Carmen are staged in Africa. Mark Dornford-May’s 2005 production U-Carmen eKahayelitsha, set in the slums of Cape Town, South Africa with the libretto rewritten in the Bantu language of Xhosa, and Joseph Gaye Ramaka’s 2001 production Karmen Gei set in Senegal, are also striking. These all-black productions root Carmen in an authentic community where centuries of colonial oppression still shape concepts of political freedom and identity. But while Dornford-May’s radically preserves Bizet’s music, with Pauline Malefance purportedly singing her arias live on-set, in Karmen Gei the mesmerizing Djeinaba Diop Gai embodies Carmen more through dance than song, her seduction backed by the powerful sound of 40 Senegalese sabar dummers.

These 21st century African Carmens point back to Nietzsche’s 19th century observation that Carmen’s music is cheerful, “not in a French or German… but in an African way.” Perhaps Carmen is resilient to dislocations of geography, race, and politics because at heart it is a misunderstanding of all of these things. The character is always unreal, unfamiliar, or exotic to someone. What neither Nietzsche, nor anyone else could have predicted, however, is how essential the cinema has become in constructing Carmen, for seeing and hearing the exotic, and for both understanding and misunderstanding ourselves. So how will Carmen be revealed next? How will Paul Curran’s Carmen contribute to this inter-medial conversation?
Let’s see!

A still from the South African film U-Carmen eKahayelitsha.
Carmen plays May 4-19, 2019 at McCaw Hall. 
Tickets & info: