“It ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings” is as close most people get to opera anymore. Yogi Berra’s famous quote, used the world over now by sportscasters when describing stunning come from behind victories, was in reference to the fact that so many operas end with the heroine declaiming her undying passion before croaking.
Mention opera to most people in North America and they usually wince. They equate it with people singing loudly and unintelligibly while standing around waving their arms a lot. It met with a slight burst of popularity in the seventies and eighties of the previous century with the emergence of Luciano Pavoratti as a singing sensation. But as his career has ebbed so has mass interest in opera.
For most of us any exposure to opera has come indirectly; its use in cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, commercials, and sporting events. One of the excerpts that most people would probably recognize on hearing would be “The Toreador Song” from George Bizet’s Opera Carmen. The stirring march has been heard backing up many an entrance in show biz and sports for years. Along with Aida and La Boheme, Carmen is one of the three operas that most people stand a chance of actually having heard if not at least having heard of.
Carmen has all the elements required for popularity; sex and violence, the good old whore/Madonna theme, and even a love triangle of sorts. The sexy Carmen uses her appeal to seduce a straight-laced soldier Don Jose, so as to avoid a jail sentence. He leaves his innocent fiancé, Micaela, behind, and falls madly in love with his seductress. Of course this being opera it all ends badly, with Carmen falling in love with the Toreador Escamillo, and Don Jose stabbing her to death after she rejects him.
What’s not to like in a plot like that? It sounds like it could have been lifted from the script of any network soap opera, or prime time drama. Of course here’s where people run into problems with opera. They can’t understand what’s going on. Carmen like most operas was written in the language that the composer spoke, and since Bizet was French his opera’s libretto was written in French.
But, truth be told, most people seem to have the biggest problem with the fact that opera is sung in what they consider a totally unrealistic manner. Even English language operas, like those of Kurt Weil, are treated with suspicion. Musical theatre is one thing, the characters sing songs like anybody else sings a song, and they’re in between bits of dialogue that tell the story.
But in opera there is hardly any dialogue, it’s all singing, and the singing is nothing like anybody else on earth does. The voices soar up and down scales, notes are held for impossibly long times and nothing seems to be happening on stage except for people standing around and singing.
Fair or not, that is how most people in North America think of opera if they think of it at all. It has become associated with money and the upper classes of society; something for the elites to enjoy not for the rest of us. The irony of this is that when most of today’s repertoire was written it was considered revolutionary and common.
Instead of the subject matter dealing with the trials of nobility, we have the lead characters in Carmen are a gypsy woman who works in a cigarette factory, a sergeant in the army, and a matador. This wasn’t considered material appropriate for people of dignity and class to be watching.
The story was considered decadent and tawdry; the first singer slated to sing the title role was horrified by the character’s behaviour; the chorus asked to smoke, fight, swing their hips…threatened to go on strike…The work was premiered on March 3, 1875…The critics destroyed it: they thought the story disgraceful…Robert Levine. Booklet notes: Georges Bizet’s Carmen Allegro 2005
The real secret involved when listening to an opera is to try and forget about the story, and the lyrics that are being sung. Usually they are in a language you don’t understand anyway, which actually makes them easier to ignore. Try listening to the voices of the singers as extensions of the orchestra, as another musical instrument.
A musical instrument that is far more adept at expressing emotions than lets say, a piano or a violin. Judge an opera by what it can make you feel when you hear the singer pouring her heart out over her lost love. How often do you ever really listen to lyrics anyway with most rock bands and pop singers? Usually you’re latching onto an emotion generated by the singer’s voice combined with the music of the band.
Take for example Opera d’Oro’s reissue of a classic live performance of Georges Bizets’s Carmen. Originally recorded in 1973 at Covent Gardens in London this three-disc set exemplifies the qualities that can make opera so magnificent. First of all it features three of the great voices in Opera: Shirley Verrett as Carmen, Placido Domingo as Don Jose, and Kiri Te Kanawa as Micaela.
Both Ms. Verrett and Mr. Domingo are in their primes, and Ms. Kanawa, in the less demanding role of Micaela, is just coming into her own. Jose Van Dam as Escamillo the Toreador handles the difficulties of singing a role that ranges from bass to baritone superbly, to round out the quartet of leads.
Each singer brings texture and nuance to their roles, so those expecting loud, louder, and loudest, will be pleasantly surprised. When you listen to an expressive voice add itself to an orchestra it is like listening to a musical note being given emotional life. Each one of these singers is able to accomplish that task, and even more amazingly, supply a variety of tone and colour that provides depth to that life.
Coordinating the whole performance of an opera, from the chorus, to the orchestra, to the big guns is no mean feat. The conductor of the Covent Garden Orchestra and chorus on the occasion of this performance was Sir Georg Solti, one of the great opera conductors of the twentieth century.
I only noticed one place in act one where the mix of orchestra, chorus and leads became a little muddy. I’m not sure if that was a reflection on the actual recording or a slight slip of control on the part of Mr. Solti. Since it is not repeated again through out the performance it means he either was able to correct something on the fly, or it was technical problem that was fixed.
Carmen is full of lively music, energy, and fun. There are very few extended arias or duets that slow down the action and make it hard for the uninitiated to enjoy. Mr. Solti sets a brisk pace as well which feels appropriate to the over all mood of anxiety and frenetic celebration of the opera.
Live recordings of opera are always risky, in that you can never be sure of the sound quality. This recording sounded just fine, with as good if not better singing than I’ve heard in some studio recordings of the same material. The tempo and energy of Carmen lend itself to a live recording with the performers and audience providing sounding boards for each other; the former feeding off the latter’s response to the energy generated on stage.
For those who are new to opera Carmen is an ideal place to get started. Opera d’Oro’s reissue of the 1973 performance at Covent Garden, from the Allegro Corporation’s latest catalogue of releases, would be an excellent version to make that introduction. Four great voices, a wonderful conductor, good sound quality, the excitement of a live performance, and packaged with a full libretto, (English translation included if you really must follow along) and introductory essay make this one of the best Carmens on the market that I’ve seen in a long time.
This may just be the ideal time to find out what the fat lady is singing about.