Instant Carmen: A gypsy, a jealous lover and three themes later incorporated into Looney Tunes
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published on 06.23.1998 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro July 2018 here.

OPERA CAN often be intimidating to the uninitiated. It’s seen — like the ballet or symphony — as one of those things brainy girls get weepy over and hetero guys attend only when coerced with the promise of other entertainment in exchange.

Foreign languages and subtitles increase the potential for a furious attack of attention deficit disorder, and the universal image of Wagner’s fat, breast-plated Brünnhilde perpetuates operatic music as a heavy, plodding, and humorless art form.

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Pretentious journalistic reviews that drown themselves in technical terms and self-congratulatory nit-picking don’t do much to help its image, either. Too bad – opera’s elitist, classist reputation belies the sublime music and often sordid story lines that are illuminated once you get the courage up to fork over the cash and enter the gilded performance hall.

Even if its not for you, ya gotta do it once; if youre gonna do it, Carmen is as good of a place to start as any.

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Carmen is one of three sirens whose ignoble lives are featured in the San Francisco Operas summer “Femmes Fatales” season. All three women are beautiful and enchanting, and all use their (ahem) feminine wiles to extract money, power, and information from one-dimensional male characters.

But whereas Poppea’s scheming makes her the empress of Rome and Lulu’s duplicitous ladder-climbing gets her iced as a matter of karmic principle, Carmen is just a poor gypsy girl who gets murdered because she made a few hasty, lovestruck decisions. Or maybe not.

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The world-class gilt-and-gargoyle architecture of the War Memorial Opera House stands in striking contrast to the make-believe forests, low-class taverns, and dirty downtown squares of the production’s minimal onstage sets.

The overture (the musical prelude to the action) forms a medley of some of Carmen‘s most recognizable hits: the “neither a borrower nor a lender be” song, the Bad News Bears theme, that song the Boston Pops play on the Fourth of July, and various Looney Tunes selections.

Carmen and Don Jose

When the curtain goes up, townspeople mill about without going anywhere, and several Spanish soldiers and civilian men, in an ancient re-creation of modern-day Mission Street, line up to examine and discuss the pretty women that are about to exit the cigarette factory for lunch.

The women come out to flirt, and everyone wonders in song form at Carmen’s whereabouts. She shows up fashionably late, directing her mercurially amorous attention toward a hapless and moderately panty-waisted soldier named Don Jose with her famous habañera (translated roughly, “If you don’t love me, then I love you, and if I love you, then watch your butt”).

Twenty minutes later, Carmen’s kicked over two or three people, gotten in a knife fight, escaped from the cops, sent Don Jose to jail for helping her break free, and is off to the bar. All in the first act. Champ.

The indecisive Carmen goes on to ensnare both the now-dishonorably-discharged Don Jose and a handsome toreador named Escamillo (who, incidentally, delivers one of the best pickup lines in history: “Tell me your name — I want to speak it the next time I’m in danger”).

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Human nature dictates that she lose interest in the weaker party, so when Don Jose’s erstwhile betrothed, Micaela, comes poking around the gypsy camp to tell the mama’s boy his mother is dying, he leaves — but not without pitching a fit.

The toreador Escamillo snags Carmen from the camp, she becomes Jerry Hall to his Mick Jagger, and Don Jose appears at the big bullfight to act really, really pathetic before finally stabbing Carmen to death out of frustration.

Just as it’s refreshing to see L7 play onstage or Linda Hamilton kick ass in the movies, it’s refreshing to see a woman in opera do something besides stand around whining about losing a loved one or being stricken with tuberculosis.

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Thankfully, in the S.F. Opera’s production of Carmen, the gypsy bombshell is played not as a flitting, flirtatious mechanism for male ruin (as can be implied, by body language only, in other productions of Carmen) but as a rebel firebrand and a downright manipulative bitch.

Too bad she doesn’t actually get to do violence to the clingy, annoying Don Jose or the pious Micaela in return, but then again, it might have made Carmen look like a period piece sponsored by “Cops.”

Opera might seem scary and fancy, but underneath all the pomp, there are only universal themes, both high-flown and lowbrow. Carmen is the latter. Of course she dies at the end — all bad girls (except Poppea) do — and the headline-ready moral of the story?

Bitch, if I can’t have you, nobody can.

Next week: the Alameda County Fair

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This is the 14th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

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