“Love is a rebellious bird”: sex, power, and freedom in Bizet’s Carmen

Opera Omaha - Carmen

Opera Omaha performed Bizet’s masterpiece Carmen on Friday, November 1. It was sweeeeeeeet. And thought-provoking.

My introduction to Georges Bizet’s Carmen came at the age of 8, by way of the classic Nicktoon Hey Arnold. Those who grew up with the show will know exactly the episode I’m talking about: “What’s Opera Arnold?” (parodying the classic Bugs Bunny Wagner parody “What’s Opera Doc?”), in which Arnold sings a panegyric in honor of his satin pants to the tune of “Habanera.” Since then, the orchestral suites that Bizet condensed from the complete score have ranked among my favorite pieces of music ever written. But it was only this past weekend that I finally had the opportunity to see the opera in its entirety, as performed by Opera Omaha at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha, NE on November 1.

[Note: I assume my reader is familiar with the plot of Carmen. If not, read this synopsis from the Metropolitan Opera and check back in when you’re finished. …Done? Alrighty.]

Love and betrayal are hardly unusual themes for opera. And the passionate affair between the gypsy Carmen and her lover-cum-murderer Don Jose is one of the all-time great operatic love stories. I’ve heard Carmen described as (and I’m paraphrasing) the “fatale-est femme in the operatic canon.” There’s no denying she’s a strong woman, strong even to the point of abrasiveness – both my wife and I admitted to not liking her all that much. However, my younger brother has suggested the following thought experiment to me re: female characters who seem abrasive: imagine them written as males and ask yourself whether their behavior still seems unlikeable and/or “bitchy,” or whether it now seems strong and/or “bad-ass.” If the latter, your conditioning is showing.

This was my wife’s take on Carmen: she seems unlikeable at first because she upends our expectations of femininity. She is neither weak nor submissive, and she’s definitely not chaste. Indeed, I thought it was significant that, on several occasions, Carmen replaces words with “tra-la-la’s” or pure melisma, as in her Chanson Bohême from Act II. The desires she experiences, and as whose representative she serves, are not expressible in language, certainly not the language of the Victorian era. And even to us modern viewers, who like to think of ourselves as so much more sexually liberated than Bizet’s contemporaries, this kind of empowered female sexuality–and the self-confidence, even haughtiness that accompanies it–makes us somewhat uncomfortable.

It certainly seems to make Don Jose uncomfortable. When the story begins, Don Jose is a man beholden to others: to the army in which he serves, to his aging mother, to his country fiancée Micaëla. His entire life is dictated externally. So it is unsurprising that he is initially spellbound by this self-confident, self-sufficient, liberated woman, so unlike Micaëla, described by librettist Ludovic Halévy as “a very innocent, very chaste young girl.” As a gypsy, she is the embodiment to the 19th-century European male mind of exoticism and liberty. To Don Jose’s mind, she represents escape from the suffocating village he calls home, liberation from a regimented military existence.

But as repressed as he may be, Don Jose is still a 19th-century European male. And this means that for him, power to order his own life consists largely in power to bend others to his will. In addition to being for Jose a symbol of freedom, Carmen is also a “wild gypsy” to be tamed and mastered. This is precisely what Jose tries to do as, in Acts III and IV, he attempts to cut off her affair with Escamillo the toreador. Finding himself once again powerless, he responds as the powerless do: first by withdrawing inward, and second by lashing out against the woman he perceives as threatening his (masculine) autonomy. Carmen must die; for if such a woman were allowed to live, she would pose too great a threat to the male self-perception and a social order constructed upon and organized around it.

Carmhelga

Is Carmhelga… er, Carmen… a paragon of seductive selfishness or a strong, sexually empowered female? Or perhaps a bit of both?

There is much to be said for a straight-ahead feminist reading of Bizet’s opera such as this. However, it omits something important about both Carmen’s and Don Jose’s characters: namely that as we walked out of the theater, Teniesha and I both remarked that we found ourselves feeling sorry for Don Jose and feeling a vague dislike of Carmen. She is not merely a strong, liberated woman, destroyed by the values of the male power structure as internalized by Don Jose. We are not mere Victorian prudes, balking at Carmen’s open, aggressive female sexuality.

Rather, we are balking at Carmen’s seeming disregard for anyone but herself. It is not that she uses Don Jose or Escamillo as means to an end – as far as I can tell, she seems to genuinely care for them. However, her caring only lasts as long as her passions, sexual or otherwise. Her obsession with la liberté, as she sings so ardently at the close of Act II, to the exclusion of such virtues as loyalty and compassion, leads to a laissez-faire attitude toward relationships romantic and otherwise. As in relationships as in economics, laissez-faire may appear attractive on its surface. But it is ultimately unsustainable – as both Carmen and Don Jose tragically discover.

Even as Don Jose finds his relationships with his mother and with Micaëla stifling or even “boring,” they provide him with a sense of groundedness. He sings in Act I of his mother standing by him in troubled times and forgiving him for his past mistakes. This is the stuff of which sustaining human relationships are made: growing together, learning to overcome adversity together, learning to love one another in spite of imperfections and human frailties. Certainly there is something lacking in Don Jose’s life, a sense of autonomy and even adventure. Likewise, he seems to have become so invested in taking care of others–his family, his country–that he has forgotten to take care of himself.

So at first blush, Carmen would appear to be exactly what he wants and needs: completely autonomous, beckoning him away from a world of constraining duties into the wild mountains. There, she tells him, “your will is the law, home’s as wide as you can see!” However, as their relationship moves beyond that first blush of passion, Don Jose finds himself increasingly frustrated by her capriciousness. She is so worried about being tied down, about losing her freedom, that she is unwilling to do the hard work of creating and maintaining deep relationships. And so she flits from man to man, clearly enjoying herself, but leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake, never attaining to the deep, lasting connections between Don Jose and his mother, for example.

Ultimately, the vision that she holds up, of complete “freedom” (from obligation at least) bringing complete happiness, is an illusion. And so, in a fit of disillusioned rage, Don Jose kills her. His response to this rage is less than ideal; but its source is understandable, and need not reflect poorly upon Don Jose’s character, even if his outworking of it does.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think we have to choose between Don Jose, the sexually frustrated pawn of patriarchy, and Don Jose, the tragic victim of Carmen’s and his own illusions. Nor do we have to choose between Carmen, the strong, sexually emancipated female, and Carmen, the paragon of seductive selfishness and ultimately unsustainable libertinism. It’s a matter not of either/or, but rather both/and.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously claimed, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It might likewise be said that the test of a first rate work of art is its capacity to admit of two opposed interpretations at the same time, and still retain its clarity of vision and artistic appeal. Judged by that criterion, Carmen succeeds mightily. No wonder we’re still watching it 140 years later.

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