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Gerald Carpenter: Music Academy Honors Marilyn Horne with ‘Carmen’

The Music Academy of the West's opera this summer is Georges Bizet's inimitable Carmen, with a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée.

David Paul
David Paul directs the stage action for the Music Academy of the West's production of Carmen.

This new production is directed by David Paul, the Festival Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan, with a cast of stars-in-the-making, otherwise known as Academy Voice Fellows, and also dancers from the State Street Ballet (choreography by William Soleau) and a chorus that includes local children.

Carmen will be formed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, both in the Granada Theatre.

“Many regard Carmen as the perfect opera," says the majestic mezzo-soprano, Marilyn Horne, "and it has maintained a constant place in the repertoire since its premiere in 1875. Whoever sings Carmen has to bring a lot of herself to the character. That’s one of the reasons she’s so interesting.”

This production is, in fact, dedicated to Horne, who has directed the Music Academy’s Voice Program since 1997, in honor of her 80th birthday. Horne has sung the role many times, and her 1974 recording of the opera, with Leonard Bernstein conducting, won that year's Grammy for Best Opera Recording.

Legend has it that Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré, the two hacks who wrote the libretto for Bizet's earlier opera, The Pearl Fishers, observed after hearing the finished product that if they had known what a great composer Bizet was, they wouldn't have given him such garbage to work with. Hmmph! As we might say now: As if! Anyway, except for a few lines from DaPonte's The Marriage of Figaro, no one ever quotes an opera libretto as text. Still, The Pearl Fishers is relevant to our appreciation of Carmen, not because it shows how much better Bizet got as a composer — because the music for The Pearl Fishers is in no way inferior to that for Carmen — but because it reveals his genius for matching the tone and color of the music to the mise-en-scène of the stage action.

The Pearl Fishers is set in ancient Sri Lanka, and the music is lush, mysterious and romantic. Carmen, in contrast, is set in "modern" times, among factory girls, soldiers and entertainers, and the music is more spare, sometimes ironic and always dynamic, while sacrificing nothing in the way of lyrical beauty and emotive grandeur.

It would be absurd to treat Carmen as some kind of proletarian drama, as if it were The Seven Brave Tractor Drivers, or some other horror of "socialist realism," but it does represent a significant departure from the long-standing operatic conventions which insisted that tragedy was the exclusive province of kings and gods and mythological heroes. The "Don" prefix of several of the male characters' names is a token of achievement or skill, not noble birth.

The fates of Carmen and Don José are determined neither by the gods nor class struggle nor even a love potion, but by the working of their unique, individual psychologies upon each other and the other people in their lives. Mérimée, after all, was a friend and disciple of Stendahl, who invented the psychological novel, and Bizet, with Carmen, used the discoveries of Stendahl and Mérimée to give us an opera that speaks to our modern condition.

Tickets to Carmen are $120 (box seat), $78, $58, $38 and $15; and they can be purchased by phone at 805.969.8787 or online by clicking here. Tickets are also available from the Granada box office at 805.899.2222.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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