Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Women of Color decolonize the art of Carmen

Perri Rhoden, Sara Porkalob, Aramis O. Hamer, Michelle Habell-Pallán, and Naomi André. Sunny Martini photo

Prior to its May performances of Carmen, Seattle Opera held a panel discussion that amplified the perspectives of Women of Color, and unpacked themes of patriarchy and white supremacy in Western art and entertainment. 

By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor

When Georges Bizet created Carmen in 1875, his home country, France, was obsessed with conquering the-so-called “Orient” (which, at the time, French people lumped the Middle East and Africa into, as well as Asia). Carmen herself is a sort of embodiment of these “faraway” cultures that France wanted to dominate. As a Roma womanan ethnic minority in white European societyCarmen brought an exotic element to the opera that French people could build fantasies upon. And like the “the Orient,” Carmen could not be fully tamed; in the end of the opera, she pays the ultimate price at the hands of Don José.

At a recent panel discussion called “Decolonizing Allure: Women of Color Artists in Conversation,” Dr. Naomi André said that this concept of “Orientalism” and the “Other” should encourage us to consider what’s at stake when we view these works.

“While [Carmen] is entertaining and wonderfuland I love Carmen, and I love that she’s bold and can say, ‘I’m interested in you. And now I’m not interested in you’remember that she’s punished at the end. She’s died at the end. It’s as if this voice is way too powerful and it has to be snuffed out.”

A scholar of Blackness in opera among other topics and a professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. André moderated “Decolonizing Allure,” which featured four additional speakers. For the Asian American woman writing this article at least, the evening offered radical and transcendent food-for-thought where many of us whose identities do not always feel centered in art forms like opera, ballet, and theater, were prioritized and honored.

Perri Rhoden poses in front of a wall of her artwork. 
The panel included visual artist Perri Rhoden, who shared her experience of first growing up as a Black woman in predominantly white Seattle, and then going to study at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington D.C. 

“Howard was maybe 80 percent women. It was so incredible being in these art classes where I was surrounded by Black women, some of whom were majoring in a creative field. Others who were working to become a scientist or another type of professional, but wanted to try something else. It was incredible seeing the talent that flowed out of the brushes and onto the canvas.”

Rhoden proposed that perhaps one reason that Carmen remains so popular today is because of Bizet’s power as a white, male storyteller in an art form that tends to uphold precisely works by this type of person.

“I wonder, if we stopped talking about how this man has incorrectly depicted this Woman of Color, would these [inaccurate depictions] stop?” she said.

Nona Hendryx, left, is one of the founding members of the doo-wop girl group, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles. The group was inducted in the R&B Hall of Fame in 1999. Later, the members reinvented themselves into the iconic funk-rock group, Labelle, seeing huge success throughout the 70s, racking up three gold albums and a #1 worldwide platinum hit with the single “Lady Marmalade.” Linda Ronstadt, right, became one of the most popular interpretive singers of the '70s, earning a string of platinum-selling albums and Top 40 singles. Throughout the '70s, her laid-back pop never lost sight of her folky roots, yet as she moved into the '80s, she began to change her sound with the times, adding new wave influences. After a brief flirtation with pre-rock pop, Ronstadt settled into a pattern of adult contemporary pop and Latin albums, sustaining her popularity in both fields.

Dr. Michelle Habell-Pallán, a UW professor who teaches music, women’s studies, Latinx studies, and more, said that even though Carmen was written 150 years ago, we still live in a patriarchal society where women's power and creativity is constantly under containment. With that said, she pointed out that Latinx and Black women, have found ways to rewrite patriarchal narratives like Carmen. The rock genre is a great place to find this.

“If we think of Nona Hendryx, and also someone like Linda Ronstadt, who’s Mexican Americanshe brought the bel canto from ranchera music into rock. She was the best-selling rock singer through the 70s, and she brought this big voice to the rock scene. She was in deep dialogue with soul music and rhythm and blues. She knew who she was in dialogue with, and also who to credit. Linda Ronstadt lived that life as a ‘free bird’...embodying a spirit that was not contained.” 

Carmen’s death at the end of the opera isn’t the only problem from an intersectional feminist perspective. Sara Porkalob, a theater artist and activist, said that Carmen is always depicted in the opera in some sort of relationship to men. When asked how Porkalob would rewrite Carmen, she said:

"I’d say take away the men. Then see what happens. If you took away the men, what would she sing about when she came out into the plaza smoking a cigarillo? I don’t know if she’d singing about love. Maybe she’d be singing about her dreams.”

Porkalob with her grandmother--her co-star in Porkalob's play Dragon Lady. 

Porkalob joined the panel just months after presenting her series of plays about her Filipinx family at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University.

“I have the wonderful privilege of coming from generations of Asian Pacific Islander, Black, Queer women, who, from the moment that I was born taught me that stereotypes (about Asian and Pacific Islander women) are not real,” she said.

Finally, Aramis O. Hamer, a painter who’s inspired by radical notions of self-care and self-love, as well as divine femininity and Black culture, shared her thoughts about whether or not we should continue to present this opera, despite the problems with it:

“The thought of not showing Carmen almost hurts me as an artist,” Hamer said. “As an artist, I feel that my purpose on this planet is to express myself. I happen to be housing the vessel of a Black woman, and so I express myself by painting purple, galactic goddesses. Bizet decided to write this story that was beautiful in 1875, but now it's 2019, and the climate has changed. It’s important to look at different times that we’re in. With that said, we’re also in a new time, and we do need new art, too. There are playwrights out here from various cultures, including from marginalized backgrounds. But we’re not always hearing their story, their opera."

Panelists, back left: Perri Rhoden, Aramis O. Hamer, Michelle Habell-Pallán, and moderator Naomi André. Front: Sara Porkalob. Sunny Martini photo
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