Thursday, April 26, 2012

Carmen notebooks: the enigmatic archetype

In preparation for discussing Carmen during my "Opera insights" talk one hour prior to each of our performances Friday and Sunday, here's a notebook essay on some of the archetypal resonance of the opera and why it's still relevant.

The great Hungarian conductor Georg Solti called Bizet an “authentic genius,” a composer who “could paint a scene brilliantly with a few masterly strokes.”

The eminent director Peter Hall called Carmen, “the greatest musical ever written in dramatic terms.”

Solti’s Memoirs quotes Nietzsche’s take on Bizet (from the philosopher’s later anti-Wagnerian writings). Here is an extended version of the passage:

This music appears perfect to me. It approaches lightly, flexibly…"That which is good is light, everything divine walks on tender feet:” the first premise of my aesthetic. This music is vicious, refined, fatalistic: with it, it stays popular--it has the refinement of a race, not that of an individual. It is rich. It is precise. It builds, it organizes, accomplishes its goal… Has one ever heard more painful, tragic accents on stage? ... And how these are achieved! Without grimaces! Without counterfeiting! Without the lie of the grand style! Finally: This music takes the listener for an intelligent person, for a musician, himself…
To repeat it: I become a better man when Bizet speaks to me, also a better musician, a better listener. Can one even still listen better? I even bury my ears beneath this music. I hear its origin. It appears to me that I am experiencing its creation--I tremble in the face of dangers that accompany some kind of risks, I am delighted with happenstances that Bizet is innocent of... Has one noticed that music frees the mind? Lends wings to thoughts? That one becomes a philosopher all the more the more one becomes a musician? The grey sky of abstraction appears to be filled with lightning…the world from the vantage point of a mountaintop... Where am I? Bizet makes me fertile. Everything good makes me fertile. I have no other gratitude. I also have no other proof for that which is good…

(trans. by Ingrid Sabharwal-Schwaegermann)

Is Bizet singular among the “authentic geniuses” of music whose fame rests predominantly on the strength of one masterpiece? Carmen is it, and the only other major works from his tragically brief life are the early opera, The Pearl Fishers, two suites of incidental music for an adaptation of Daudet’s L’Arlesienne, and the Symphony in C.

On the underappreciated author of L’Arlesienne, Alphonse Daudet, Roberto Bolaño has penned a description that applies to Bizet’s gypsy smugglers. Reading Daudet, the late Chilean writer recalls “the happy sense of license that comes after a perfect theft and the feeling of freedom from smoking one’s first cigarettes…” (from Between Parentheses).

One of the “masterly strokes” Bizet painted was Carmen’s haunting “fate motif.” Nephew of Berlioz’s “idée fixe” and Wagner’s “Leitmotiv,” Bizet’s tune coils and winds like a deadly snake or a mysteriously powerful charm. It first appears in slow and foreboding form at the end of the otherwise ebullient prelude (where the popular tunes of the opera are introduced). It sounds with lightning quickness after Carmen bewitches Don José with her flower, sharp as a rose’s thorn. Its chromatic inflections link it to not only Romany Gypsy music, but to the Middle East, Asia and North Africa.

Such diverse origins underscore the enigmatic nature of not only Bizet’s theme; they point towards Carmen herself. Unity in diversity is one mark of an archetype, and one sign of Carmen’s enduring and near universal appeal. She is the “classical tragic protagonist,” Peter Conrad notes in his acclaimed study, A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera.

Conrad’s title refers to the Greek twinning of Eros and Thanatos (love and death), a pairing echoed in Nietzsche’s famous dialectic of Apollo and Dionysus. But one needn’t have a PhD to understand the philosophical relevance of these archetypal opposites.

I have quoted Dana Gioia and Robert Donington in essays about Carmen and opera itself. They both write perceptively about opera’s special intensity and its ability to evoke the classical catharsis of emotion; the vicarious experience we have of being moved and stirred by music and theatre. It is opera’s direct and expressively intense confrontation with archetypes that enables this affective response and it is one of the reasons opera fans are among the original “fanatics” of the theatre-going crowd.

Why are we so drawn to Carmen? Peter Conrad believes we are compelled by her fearless confrontation with danger and her refusal to compromise her individuality.

“Some of opera’s most psychologically thrilling moments are refusals to repent… Carmen won’t return to Don José when he unsheathes his knife… Such courting of danger is the energy of theatrical performance.”

Carmen is an enigma. An enigma is another ancient Greek concept exemplified in the riddle of the Sphinx. “What animal walks on one leg, two legs, and four legs?” ‘Man,’ was the infamous correct answer from the tragic hero Oedipus, whose fate it was to become the first human enigma.

“Carmen is a classical tragic protagonist,” Conrad writes. “Like Oedipus at the crossroads, when she turns over the cards, she faces consequence, destiny and death.” And it is this equation of facing consequences and embracing destiny and death after choosing a path at the crossroads that is vital to our understanding of the Oedipus myth. The Freudian psychosexual component associated with Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta is a symptom of an original sickness stretching back at least one generation. The “Oedipal complex” should not be reduced to the scandal of the incest taboo.

Modern audiences may perceive the Oedipal resonances in Carmen more easily in the character of the emotionally stunted tragic anti-hero, Don José. José is torn between duty to his mother (and her “good girl” proxy, Micaela) and the “bad girl” femme fatale, Carmen. He is torn between duty to his trade as a soldier and the life of freedom he desires with “his” gypsy. This split is an example of the Apollo / Dionysus conflict that is central to our experience of what it is to be human. The twin poles of intellect and emotion, reason and passion, light and dark, technique and inspiration are just a handful of the rippling manifestations of this dialectic.

The inability to recognize the split is one of the origins of neuroses, and the failure to confront any profound psychological problem often leads to tragedy. Every time a scorned lover abuses or kills his former girlfriend or ex-wife, the unchecked aggression of Don José has lashed out again with devastating consequences.

So the Freudian diagnoses should not be summarily discarded. Robert Donington observes, “Bizet married a second installment of his mother problem” (Opera & Its Symbols: The Unity of Words, Music & Staging). This is fascinating to consider in light of his tenor’s rapturously beautiful music. Like Bizet himself, José appears stuck. It is telling that his famous aria, the impassioned and nostalgic “flower song” is an obsessive reverie that can only circle back on itself in the muted key of D-flat. Carmen and Micaela both share the sunlight of G major. The “devil in music” interval of the diminished 5th (the tritone) separates his desperately imploring aria and Carmen’s direct – if manipulative – challenge: “No, you don’t love me. If you loved me, you’d come away with me.”

While Carmen wants to lure José away as her latest conquest, Micaela wants to win him back. It is her ravishing aria that anchors the courageous fidelity of her virtue and ensures our sympathy with another of Bizet’s marvelous creations. Micaela does not appear in the Prosper Merimée novella upon which the opera is based. This bit of trivia may appear insignificant until we weigh the number of adaptations of Carmen and the pride of place Bizet shares with Merimée.

The 20th century was obsessed with Carmen, and directors from the stage and screen adapted Bizet’s masterpiece while reconsidering the original novella. James Cain, who wrote the novel Mildred Pierce, first wrote the Carmen-inspired Serenade (which was turned into a kitsch film vehicle for Mario Lanza). The cutting-edge film directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francesco Rosi both adapted Carmen, as did the theatre directors Peter Brook and Peter Hall. Vicente Aranda’s 2003 film is one of the few adaptations to overturn Bizet in favor of Merimée. Pop adaptations have ranged from Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones to MTV’s “hip-hop opera” starring Beyoncé Knowles.

We may never know how many times Bizet has turned over in his grave since 1875. But he died from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 36, shortly after the premiere of Carmen. The “mother problem” Donington refers to manifest itself in hallucinations the composer suffered after her death. Bizet spoke of seeing his mother “coming into the room. She would stand next to me and put her hand on my heart. With that the agony would become more intense. I would suffocate, and it would seem to me that her hand so heavily weighing upon me was actually the cause of my suffering.”

Donington notes the “cause was angina,” but credits the composer’s associations as psychologically correct. He notes, “pressure which appears to have built up within Bizet’s unconscious from such contradictory impulses of love and hatred, fascination and repulsion, fear and guilt, might have been potent both for danger and creation.”

Donington and Conrad both allude to the uncanny night of Bizet’s death, in which the creator of the title role of Carmen, Galli-Marié “nearly collapsed in the scene where the cards foretell her death” (Donington). Conrad says she cried “Bizet is dead” and Donington supports her claim to have said, after fainting in the wings, “it was not for herself that she was afraid.”

The “twilight zone” synchronicity of the composer’s death and his protagonist’s subsequent immortality points toward the enigmatic nature of both the tragic hero and the creative genius.

Dionysus (aka: Bacchus) is not only the god of wine and pleasure; he is the patron god of the theatre. His is the emblematic twin faces of drama’s mask, one with a smile and the other with tears. Dionysus was also “twice-born,” once from the mortal consort of Jupiter, Semele and next from the thigh of the father-god himself.

If Apollo inspires the prototypical bard, Orpheus, then Dionysus consorts with Eros and inflames the passion and ecstasy that give art the force of nature.

The Dionysian or Bacchanalian Dithyramb, an ecstatic hymn of praise, comes to life again in Carmen. Conrad cites Carmen’s second birth “from the spirit of music” as she sings and dances her dithyrambic Gypsy songs.

Carmen’s embrace of life and death – like that other enigmatic operatic anti-hero, Don Giovanni – is an example of opera’s ability to reunite opposites, according to Conrad. Philosophically, opera synthesizes the thesis and antithesis of the dialectic. This is experienced psychologically and physiologically through the catharsis evoked by the union of drama and music that is at its most intense and viscerally powerful in opera. In other words, opera rocks, and Carmen is the bomb.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Production notebook: Carmen

I can't believe our new production of Carmen is only one week away. Our Jefferson Center crew loaded in the set this week. Below is the wall of the tavern, the setting for Act 2.

Mounting a new opera production is one of the most complex and challenging, nerve-wracking and exciting enterprises in all of the arts. Visitors to our rehearsals these past two weeks have commented both on the intricacies of choreographing scenes as varied as knife fights and Gypsy dances. In addition to marveling at the multifaceted talents required of opera singers, newcomers to the process are struck by how down to earth and apparently "normal" our cast is. (We both appreciate the compliment of being thought normal, and chuckle amongst ourselves at how abnormal are both the training and subsequent paths of the opera singer lives we variously lead).

Equally of interest to me is the process of watching singers assimilate characters they are debuting. Only our Carmen, Carla Dirlikov, and our Morales, Kevin Grace, have sung their roles prior to this production. And of the 10 principal singers in Carmen, only 4 of them have previously appeared with Opera Roanoke. Carla made her professional debut here in 2005 as Flora in La Traviata (in which I sang Gastone and was associate conductor). Amy Cofield Williamson made her company and role debut in Lucia di Lammermoor under Steven White's baton (immediately following Steven's Met debut in 2010). Our Zuniga and Remendado, Keith Reed and Marshall Rollings (respectively) both debuted with Opera Roanoke earlier this season in Il Trovatore. Marshall was a member of our Young Apprentice Artist program this past fall, and is now the first alumnus of that still new program to return to sing a principal role.

In addition to watching the singers evolve as they put the show "on its feet," we are seeing the set materialize on stage after looking for months at the sketches from our designers, Jimmy Ray and Laurie Ward. Here is the original sketch for Act 2:

Friends and interested audience members are welcome to attend our final staging rehearsals in the Jefferson Center rehearsal hall backstage. We're there today (April 20) from 2-5 and again from 7-10, and we are running through the show tomorrow, April 21 from 3-6:30. If you've never watched a rehearsal for a play, musical or opera, it is an entertaining and enlightening window into this vital and engaging artistic medium.

Program notes on Carmen are a couple of posts below this one, and a more philosophical essay on the soul of Spanish culture, especially in music, dance and the bullfight is just below this post.

In promoting this opera, I have said Carmen is so popular and so powerful because its characters are both larger than life and true to it. Carmen is free-spirited and courageous as she is brazen. She is true to her word and her code. And since her code is not ours, her "otherness" both adds to her allure and makes her dangerous. Wrongly judged as immoral and too easily dismissed as amoral, Carmen maintains her dignity and honor up to and through her tragic death. Don José wins our sympathy with his impassioned singing and romantic sensibility, but dashes our hopes and ruins his life through the "tragic flaws" of his jealousy and unchecked rage. Scorned lovers turned murderers still stimulate the imaginations of our culture through crime dramas and thrillers. And they populate our news media with disturbing regularity. Art imitates life, and it is a multi-purpose tool to teach us about ourselves. The creativity inherent in the imagination is uniquely human and the source of our greatest potential.

One of the most important and unremarked aspects of opera is its ability to evoke the famous dramatic catharsis of emotion. The vicarious experience of identifying with a character and / or being moved by her is unique to theatre and articulated with concentrated force in opera, where word and music, poetry and song, drama and dance all mingle and combine with alchemical magic to touch our hearts and stir our souls. We are not alone in co-opting such lofty speech about our beloved genre and art in general.

The poet and librettist Dana Gioia writes perceptively about opera as a particularly powerful art form, full of "peak moments" of "special lyric...[and] emotional intensity." Though creating characters with broad strokes in bold colors, great opera is full of insight into the human experience. We are moved by Carmen and Don Jose and Micaela and Escamillo because they sing their emotions in a special musical language speech can only approximate or describe. If you've never been to the opera, Carmen is a great place to start the journey. Just ask those of us who live for it.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lorca: The Duende in Deep Song and the Bullfight

I shared some of Lorca's writing on the spirit of the bullfight yesterday with our Carmen cast as we staged the Toreador song. My program note on Carmen is the post below this essay on Lorca's poetics.

The Spanish poet, playwright and anti-fascist martyr Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) located the essence of his country’s spirit in the duende, “a mysterious power that everyone senses and no philosopher explains.” According to Lorca translator Christopher Maurer, duende is equal parts “irrationality, earthiness, heightened awareness of death” with “a dash of the diabolical.” Lorca found the duende in three particular art forms: flamenco dance, “deep song” and the bullfight.

Though Lorca was suspect of non-native imitations of the Spanish spirit like Carmen, Bizet’s heroine is possessed by the “mysterious power” and enthralls us with her earthy and diabolical allure. Carmen courses with the deep soul of Gypsy song and dance, and pivots around the ritual drama of the bullfight and its direct concourse with death.

“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought,” Lorca writes. He quotes a maestro of the guitar saying, “the duende climbs up inside you,” and requires a “true living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”

The “ancient culture” Lorca describes was in touch with the “bitter root” of existence, and the “pain which has no explanation,” which is why we have music and drama, poetry and art.

When we hear a performance of technical skill and obvious talent, we may be impressed, but we will leave the theatre unmoved if the invisible presence of this unexplainable pain is missing. “You have a voice, and you know the styles, but you will never triumph, because you have no duende,” Lorca quotes a famed Andalusian maestro assessing a novice.

Lorca’s In Search of Duende has been republished in a slim paperback volume (New Directions, 2010). The collection of essays, lectures and a bilingual selection of poetry is the source for this essay’s quotes.

Carmen’s gypsy songs are examples of Cante Jondo, or “Deep Song.” Portuguese Fado is another. In deep song, “the melodic phrase begins to pry open the mystery of the tones and remove the precious stone of the sob, a resonant tear on the river of the voice.”

Lorca’s poetic gift for vivid metaphor is apparent in his prose. His language approaches that of music. The heightened expressive power of such forms “require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die and open their contours.” This is why opera, for example, has such capacity to move us. By combining music, poetry, drama and dance, opera is an extreme form of expression. If poetry is heightened speech, then music is heightened poetry. If drama is intensified human relationship and situation, and dance is highly expressive movement, then by uniting all these forms, opera is possessed of incomparable range and inimitable force. Though Lorca doesn’t make the case explicit, opera may be the form most informed by his concept of duende.

Lorca hears the influence of deep song in the Russian school of composers, and that “lyrical Argonaut,” Claude Debussy, a “composer of fragrance and of pure sensation” (and a musical nephew of Bizet).

He hears the spirit from Spain to Russia in the “sad modulations…of mysterious bells.” The “melancholy” that French Romantics called Spleen is “wide open to the four winds of the spirit.” It is present in visionary works, from the poetry of Poe and Baudelaire, the dramas of Pushkin and to the fantastic films of Tarkovsky and Almodovar. “The living eternal enigma of death” is too fearsome a presence, and so pop culture avoids it or trivializes it with gratuitous violence. How easily are "foreign" films dismissed as too dark, dense or depressing, when the tragedy unfolding is merely unsanitized and unsettling, too close to the harsh truth for comfort.

Lorca evokes archetypal images from mythology like the Sibyl, the Sphinx, and the Minotaur. Such symbols still carried resonant meaning for Lorca and his contemporaries. The “clash of the titans” of ancient mythology has since been lobotomized to over-stuffed special effects for boys of all ages. What was truly spectacular conflict, the original dramatic “thriller,” has been reduced to mere spectacle. Lorca knew Homer and Dante and probably conversed with them. We have Hollywood. The latter would not be as lamentable if we were more conversant with the former.

Lorca’s singer is “celebrating a solemn rite. He rouses ancient essences from their sleep, wraps them in his voice, and flings them into the wind. He has a deeply sacred sense of song.” The most solemn of rituals where the duende is concerned is perhaps the most remote for non-Spanish peoples, and that is the bullfight. Lorca sees the sacred form of the bull in the very shape of his homeland. Where Italy is a boot and France “an espresso pot… Spain stretches out like the hide of a bull… it has the shape of an animal hide, and a sacrificial animal at that. In this geographical symbol lies the deepest, most dazzling and complex part of the Spanish character.”

Lorca’s description calls to mind mythical images of mysterious beasts, from the cattle of the Sun god to the Minotaur, from sacred cows to the idolatrous Golden Calf. The bullfight is an echo of Theseus battling the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth and reemerges in the Roman Circus of the Gladiators in the Collosseum. In Carmen, Escamillo describes the bullring as a “circus full of blood.”

For Lorca, the “sharp, fleeting black form” of the bull is “one so full of passion it makes us shiver.” His description of the “chain of glorious deaths” of famous matadors bears quoting at length.

…the deaths of Spaniards sacrificed by a dark religion which almost no one understands. That religion burns like a perpetual flame before the gallantry, refinement, generosity and ambitionless bravura of the Spanish people. The Spaniard feels swept away by a grave force which makes him play with the bull. This is an irrational force which cannot be explained… Perhaps it comes to us from the dead, who stare at us from the motionless fence around the bullring of the room. They say that the torero goes to the ring to earn money, prestige, glory, applause…but this is not true. He goes to the ring to be alone with the bull, an animal he both fears and adores, and to whom he has much to say. The torero enjoys the applause, but he is so absorbed in the ritual that he hears and sees the public as though it were in another world. And in fact it is. The public is lost in a world of creation and constant abstraction. It is the only public composed not of spectators but of actors. Each person in the audience fights the bull along with the torero, not by following the flight of the cape, but by using another imaginary one… And thus the torero bears the yearning of thousands of people.

[Manet: The Dead Toreador]

This dramatic spectacle and solemn ritual is not unlike another art form of ritual, spectacle, and a theatre of participation. The audience at the opera house is actively involved in the drama, swept up by it and willingly carried along with it. Like the torero, the actor or singer is completely absorbed and consumed by the dramatic encounter. Though not literally a case of life-and-death as in the bullring, the duende-fueled performer experiences the drama as a palpable struggle, a symbolic encounter and a literal “little death.”

Lorca also touches on one of the temptations for the “star” of any theatre, from the bullring to the sports stadium to the red carpet. The trappings of fame – from acclaim to wealth – corrupt. Lorca has advice for the one who prizes integrity over profit and would rather advance his soul than career. He must follow a narrow path of “ardent struggle” and “endless vigil… fighting his duende,” a spirit which must be aroused “in the remotest mansions of the blood.” Separating the wheat from the chaff requires that “we pay a little attention and not succumb to indifference in order to discover the fraud and chase away their clumsy artifice.” Like the “trouble-maker” agent provocateur Thomas Bernhard, and all his dissident kin, the whistle-blower on fraud and artifice is always in a lonely minority. Lorca was executed for his defiance of Franco’s fascist revolution. That his work was dismissed as the “degenerate” art of a homosexual made the murder less unpalatable for many.

Art is provocative and disturbing by nature. Carmen caused a scandal when it premiered in 1875. “An axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart,” as Kafka described art, the duende is present in unsettling images from Goya’s madmen to El Greco’s martyrs. The “duende-ridden” canvases of Velazquez inspired Manet (the most Spanish of French artists.) Frequently flamed by the duende, Picasso commemorated the collective death of a city burned by Franco (in the year after Lorca’s murder) in one of the most celebrated of his canvases, Guernica.

The bull looms large in Picasso’s life and work, in all its immense complexities.
The literal encounter with death in the ring is mirrored literally and figuratively in the wound. From the pierced side of Christ to the mythological wounds of Ulysses and Amfortas, this encounter with death is necessary for individuation and wholeness. As Jacob discovered in his wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord, “the duende wounds.” In a line that may have inspired Joseph Campbell, Lorca writes, “In the healing of that wound, which never closes, lie the strange, invented qualities of a man’s work.”

Lorca notes “the duende loves the rim of the wound…and takes it upon himself to make us suffer by means of a drama of living forms.” This is Lorca’s version of Aristotle’s catharsis of emotion, one of the defining purposes of theatre and ritual. It needs a special kind of voice, one that conjures “not forms, but the marrow of forms, pure music.” Lorca said Spain was “open to death” in ways other cultures are not. “A dead man in Spain is more alive than anyplace else in the world.” Lorca is still alive in the duende he found and conjured. And like every character embodying the paradox of being larger than life while remaining true to it, Carmen lives on long after the curtain falls. Her deep songs echo in the chambers of our souls like the spirits of the never-to-be-forgotten dead whose memory urges us forward.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Carmen's Enduring Allure

Notes on Bizet's Carmen
for Opera Roanoke's new production,
April 27 & 29

The American poet and librettist Dana Gioia has written perceptively about the power of music, and opera in particular: "What opera excels at is presenting peak moments of human emotion. While the structure of opera is narrative, its power is lyric. Better perhaps than any other art form, it can represent the full emotional intensity of a specific moment…"

Carmen is an opera full of those “peak moments” that keep us coming back to Bizet’s gypsies and toreadors for more. The score resounds with “emotional intensity” because its composer gave us characters that are at once larger than life and true to it. And that apparent paradox is another exceptional quality in opera’s one-of-a-kind appeal.

Historically, Carmen is famous for ushering in an era of realism in opera that reached its peak in the verismo style of Puccini. Carmen was also one of opera’s notorious opening night disasters. The 1875 Parisian audience was unprepared for the frank portrayals of everyday factory workers and soldiers, and shocked by the “passionate seriousness” with which Bizet treated the affairs of his heroine and her lovers. According to the opera historian Winton Dean, Bizet made "his characters react to love and jealousy not in the conventional stagey manner but like men and women of flesh and blood – people whose behavior was not discussed in polite society… This made audiences uncomfortable."

While audiences soon outgrew their discomfort and crowned Carmen the masterpiece of French opera it is, its popularity must owe to something deeper than the acquired comfort of familiarity or the infectiousness of its music. What caused a scandal in 1875 might reveal to us the essence of Carmen’s allure and that special “lyric power” of opera itself. The femme fatale character of Carmen is an archetype, and archetypes are symbols that affect us with their inherent power. Carmen’s symbolic opposite, the sun to her moon, the light to her dark, is Micaela, the proverbial “girl next door,” whom the emotionally stunted Don José would have been safer marrying. But “safe” dramas are not only oxymoronic they are predictably dull.

Bizet’s exceptional music reinforces the latent strength of his characters’ symbolic potential with a dramatic thrust that makes Carmen one of those operas as beloved by musicians as it is by audiences. He matches the pulsing volatility of each character’s passion, a generative source of great theatre itself, with music that brings the drama to life literally before our eyes and ears. The opening night audience in 1875 was scandalized because they were unprepared to confront such tantalizing danger on the operatic stage. That stumbling-block break with convention is exactly what enables us to be swept along for the thrilling ride Carmen is. Though he is unstable and hot-tempered, narcissistic and immature, Don José’s passionate sincerity, if not endearing him to everyone, makes him a true-to-life young man. And though we know it would be another story entirely if José married Micaela, we can’t help but be torn between affection for the pure-hearted soprano and unnerved by our dangerous attraction to the sultry-voiced mezzo, Carmen.

The potency of one of those archetypal symbols was manifest in a fateful performance of Carmen three months after its premiere. On the night Bizet suddenly died, aged 36, the creator of the role of Carmen, Galli-Marié almost collapsed in the Act III “card trio” where the gypsy ominously foreshadows her own death. After fainting in the wings following the scene, she claimed, “it was not for herself that she was afraid.” Bizet may be the clearest example of an artistic genius whose fame rests almost exclusively on one work whose success he did not live to see. Brahms claimed to have seen Carmen over 20 times, and Tchaikovsky predicted its enduring fame soon after its ill-fated premiere. Wagner considered it a masterpiece. It is a vindication of Bizet’s exceptional gift that Carmen is one of the greatest dramas on any stage. The first opera we produced in Shaftman Performance Hall, it is our pleasure to present Carmen again for Opera Roanoke audiences in this 10th anniversary season of the Jefferson Center.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

This "insensible melting:" L2P at the TMA

This "insensible melting…"
Metempsychosis and Earth with Meaning: Listening to Paintings
at the Taubman Museum of Art

Below are the quotes and notes for my presentation of "Listening to Paintings" today at the Taubman Museum of Art. The program was framed by arias from Carmen, featuring the leading ladies of the opera, Carla Dirlikov as Carmen and Amy Cofield Williamson as Micaela. Carmen and Micaela are opposites in the opera, the soprano the pure and innocent "light" to the "dark love" of the seductive Gypsy. Maria Oakey Dewing's portrait in the American Gallery,"The Rose" is tinged with chiaroscuro (literally "light - dark") shadings and is a perfect pairing for Carmen and her bewitching allure.

After the Habanera from Carmen, we moved upstairs to Earth with Meaning: The Photographs of Alan Cohen. I shared a moment of synchronicity I experienced when reading curator Mary Jane Jacob's essay on Cohen's art. The meaningful coincidence of encountering in the gallery guide one of my favorite writers on art, the early 20th century philosopher John Dewey, reinforced the synchronicity of the program itself. "Listening to Paintings" is about the "unexpected relationships" that arise between not only artist and audience but various genres of art, like music and painting, opera and photography. What is an aria, if not a portrait of a particular character in a specific setting whose art transcends specificity to speak (or sing!) across time and space.

The artist’s “experience of being there unfolds into our experience of seeing…we take this forward, as intellect and as emotion, and an ‘insensible melting’ [John Dewey] occurs when we give ourselves to this work.”
(Mary Jane Jacob on Alan Cohen)

Dana Gioia, writing on opera, unabashedly committed to catharsis and the extremes of human experience:

What opera excels at is presenting peak moments of human emotion… its power is lyric… it can represent the full emotional intensity of a specific moment… That special lyric intensity explains why people so often cry at the opera… For a few moments they have become the character on the stage…this transforming subjectivity is not incidental but essential to opera’s identity.

Juxtaposing this with Jacob's assessment of Cohen's work, we begin to make connections between these genres and their parallel abilities to move us. The artist’s “perspective allows us to discover unexpected relationships…[aided by his] exquisite use of the subtle vocabulary of tonalities, light and shadow…” (Jacobs on Cohen)

John Dewey (from Art as Experience): art is nature transformed by entering into new relationships. Expression is the clarification of turbid emotions.

If not always clarified, such "turbid emotions" are sensible and tangible, they move and affect us palpably, vicariously effecting that catharsis. This is the essential power of art.

That fundamental power is present in the symbols and archetypes of art and music. Such symbols are encoded messages of meaning with potency of amazing force. In Opera and its Symbols, Robert Donington writes:

unconscious symbols will lie barely hidden beneath the conscious images… Somewhere beneath the threshold of consciousness, we know obscurely…we get some of the sensations of familiarity without any awareness of its unseen causes. We are gripped, we are absorbed…It is from this blend of conflicting impressions that the sense of purification by catharsis may in certain circumstances arise. Confrontation with archetypal material is likely to be cathartic. Confrontation with the archetypes is the chief business of opera

We then reviewed some of these "symbols of transformation," from the elements & nature to the cosmos & "spirit-world."

Water=life, purification, baptism / rites

sea=unconscious, unfathomable, infinity, womb / Homer's Odyssey & the "wine-dark" sea

Earth=seasons as symbols of change, flux, death/rebirth; Dante's selva oscura (dark wood)

Fire=(like water = life, purification); alchemy (transformation), light, energy
(color as symbolic: red= fire, blood, passion, danger...)

Cosmos=mystery, (like the sea = infinity), darkness, shadow; sun/moon/stars

Spirit-worlds=angels & devils, daemons, dragons & mythical creatures (light & shadow, benevolent & malevolent)

We connected Alan Cohen's photographs to the exhibit across the hall, Metempsychosis: The Power of Transformation. The symbols and archetypes present in Cohen's work are present in the sculptures, paintings and murals resonant with imagery and associations. We also noted that Renaissance artists desired a rebirth not only of classical aesthetics but a reconnection to the "spirit-worlds" by which the ancients experienced a sensible and tangible connection to the "beyond." They read the events of their lives as signs in an ongoing dialogue with the gods, rife with meaning and interpreted via art.

I have need of angels. Enough hell has swallowed me for too many years. But finally understand this – I have already burned up one hundred thousand lives already, from the strength of my pain. [Antonin Artaud]

I invited the participants to wander around the photography exhibit while I sang 3 short songs inspired by geography or landscape. Connecting not only the archetypal images of the "dark wood" and "wine-dark sea" present in Cohen's work, but the pictures of boundaries and borders around the world, equally rich with associations. 20th-century German images, from the Berlin Wall to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp are among Cohen's subjects, and the juxtaposition of contrasts in Germany is striking as it is unsettling. I mentioned Weimar (the nearest city to Buchenwald), the East German center of Romanticism, home to the poet, philosopher, botanist and scientist Goethe and his colleague (of "Ode to Joy" fame), Schiller. I started with a quintessential German Romantic art song by Schumann. "In der Fremde" (In a foreign land) evokes the imagery of the solitary wanderer.

I then shared the British composer, poet and soldier Ivor Gurney's epigrammatic elegy for his beloved English countryside, "Severn Meadows:"

Only the wanderer
Knows England's graces,
Or can anew see clear
Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.

I concluded the short set of "landscape" songs with an ironic lullaby Sting recorded on one of his early solo albums. "The Secret Marriage" was originally a Bertolt Brecht (author of "The Three-Penny Opera" with Kurt Weill) poem set by Hanns Eisler, one of many emigrant German artists exiled during the Nazi era. The original text is a song the poet sings to his "little radio," the faithful companion who gives him news about his enemies, the one "friend" who will journey with him away from bondage into the longed-for freedom of exile.

We then moved across the hall to the Metempsychosis exhibit, curated by Ray Kass. There, we reinforced the transforming potential of opera, the most multi-genre of art forms called the "total work of art" for good reason.

Metempsychosis Diptychs of Sally & Jessie Mann & Liz Ligouri are multi-layered and resonant. They evoke an old form (the two-paneled Diptych) with new vision, creating another example of "unexpected relationships." Their chiaroscuro subject is the "dark wood" archetype, visible in the fragmented photographs thinly veiled behind painted-over layers of the canvas.

Stephen Addiss' Sumi-ink print, Enso ("Past & Present are two")
Here, the past & present overlap and combine, hinting at transformation in the future...

Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is. [Dewey]

Michael Hoffman and the Mt Lake Workshop's large, powerful canvas, "Under Mountain Lake Dragon" is a favorite. It is a potent archetypal symbol with many layers of operatic meaning.

The enemies of the aesthetic are neither the practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum (Dewey).

Martin Johnson’s “operatic” objects are anything but humdrum. They remind me of Rauschengerg's seminal “Combines” from the mid-20th-century, multimedia "Gesamtkunstwerk" ("total work of art").

I have two favorite "Combine Arias" (my title): Cartunispending, and Fanunishead ("Hydrogen Jukebox")

While Johnson's titles may be part cryptic message and part Dada-Fluxus prank, the subtitle "Hydrogren Jukebox" comes directly from a seminal poem of the 1950's, Allen Ginsberg's infamous Whitmanian ode, Howl. In the 1990's he collaborated on an operatic adaption of it with the composer Phillip Glass. About the work, Ginsberg said:

"Ultimately, the motif… the underpinning, the secret message, secret activity, is to relieve human suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium. The title comes from HOWL:

'...listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...' It signifies a state of hypertrophic high-tech, a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input with civilization's military jukebox, a loud industrial roar, or a music that begins to shake the bones and penetrate the nervous system as a hydrogen bomb may do someday, reminder of apocalypse."

Here is the excerpt from Howl in which the title phrase appears:

…who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy
Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought
them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain
all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat
through the stale beer after noon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the
crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,

who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue
to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge

We concluded our time of "transformation" in that eclectic and provocative exhibit with a whimsical musical transformation of my tenor voice up an octave to sing soprano in a Renaissance madrigal duet with Amy. Thomas Morley's depiction of two lovers "with wanton glances" who simply "dally" is an apt metaphor for the essential pleasure of spending time "dallying" with art and music. Not "wanton" in any untoward way, but excessively rich with the possibilities of finding meaning and experiencing life amidst the full bloom of human creativity.

After the madrigal, Amy sang Micaela's ravishingly beautiful aria from Carmen, and I closed with a favorite quote from Victor Hugo: "music expresses that which cannot be said, and cannot be suppressed."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Meet our Carmen!

Our new production of Carmen is right around the corner, and before I post notes about it, I want to share several opportunities to meet our Carmen,
Carla Dirlikov before she takes the stage later this month. Check out our website for more details on the Carmen cast.

And be sure not to miss a special opportunity with soprano,
Elizabeth Futral, April 25!

Tonight, April 5, 8:00 PM:
Carla and Amy Cofield Williamson and I will be in the
Squires Recital Salon at Va Tech
for a concert of operatic excerpts entitled "Troubadours and Gypsies."

Saturday, April 7, 11:00 AM:
Carla will make a cameo appearance at the top of my "Listening to Paintings"
presentation at the Taubman Museum of Art. Amy will join me to conclude this hour-long presentation of music and art.

Saturday, April 7, 12:00 PM:
Arrive early for the Met "Live in HD" broadcast of Manon
at Virginia Western and meet Carla before the broadcast.
OR President and WDBJ7 CEO Jeff Marks will host and introduce Carla to our Met audience at approximately 11:30 AM.

Wednesday, April 11, 6:30 PM:
Join Carla and members of the Carmen cast for an operatic
wine dinner at Horizon Bar & Grill. Call Horizon to reserve
your place at the table with our artists. (540) 342-5133

Saturday, April 14, 12:55 PM:
The Met "Live in HD" season at Virginia Western concludes
with a new production of Verdi's La Traviata. Help
us make the HD season finale the biggest hit
yet by bringing a friend to the opera!

Saturday, April 14, 7:00 PM:
It's another double-header day of operatic adventure
in Roanoke! Grab a bite to eat after La Traviata
and join percussionist Tom Teasley and me for a
one-of-a-kind presentation of live music and
conversation at the Taubman Museum.

Mark your calendars! April 25, 3:30 - 5 pm:
Masterclass with Elizabeth Futral

World-renowned soprano and home-town
favorite Elizabeth Futral will lead a masterclass
with members of our Young Apprentice Artist Program
in the Rehearsal Hall of the Jefferson Center.
Come watch Elizabeth work with our young artists
and hear the difference a master artist can make with
an apprentice. The event is a fundraiser for our
Apprentice Program, and the suggested donation is $25.

CARMEN, April 27 at 8:00 PM and April 29 at 2:30 PM
Shaftman Performance Hall at the Jefferson Center