Bizet: Carmen (1875) (Metropolitan Opera 1987)

Agnes Baltsa is apparently a great singer, though I wouldn’t know since this is the first opera I’ve ever audited, but what I do know, without a doubt, is that she’s too old for the role of Carmen. To be sure, all four of the leads in the 1987 Met version of Carmen are vastly too old for their roles. All the makeup in the world doesn’t hide it, and I become fairly uncomfortable watching them prance around performing the roles of teenagers, really sexy teenagers, and I keep thinking of Hamlet telling his mother “you cannot call it love; for at your age / The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment.” And I cry, and I cry, and I cry, and I cry.

A note by the Royal Opera House mentioned that contemporary reviews found the music replete with dissonance, which is difficult to imagine in an age when Carmen feels like a three-hour salad dressing commercial (by the way: salad comes from the Latin for ‘salt’–which means that a plate of vegetables is nothing but a plate of vegetables until you dress it, fool). A note by the San Francisco Opera described Carmen’s death as being the ultimate act of love for herself and Don José. I don’t see any evidence for this, partially because Carmen reads her fate in the cards and only afterwards seems bent on seeking its reality. But most of all, I think she’s just a fickle whore for whom such an ending, if truly an act of love, is too good.

Anyway, seeing as I don’t know anything about opera and thus shouldn’t make comments, I’ll briefly mention the things I find interesting about the character of Micaela:

“To illustrate: opera, as a matter of convention, demands solo voices…a soprano, contralto, tenor and bass in primary roles; there are vocal combinations of these four timbres, a chorus, orchestral interludes and accompaniments. The heroine, Carmen, conceived by the composer as a contralto, needed the light, lyric quality of a soprano voice as a foil. Mérimée’s gypsy had no female rival, so that Bizet felt obliged to invent one: Micaela” (Nowinski).

“The most frequently criticized artistic concession, on the part of Bizet, is his creation of Micaela. She springs to life, fully grown like Athena, based on a single mention in Mérimée. Purists invariably conclude that she represents a violation of the author’s original story. Don José’s reminiscence of a Basque maiden is simply personified–a legitimate, conventional tool, used by dramatists. Seen in this light, and as a vocal foil for Carmen’s contralto voice, Micaela assumes genuine validity.”

I need a soprano, so how about an imaginary soprano who always knows where to find Don José, with whom other characters don’t particularly interact (except the soldiers at the outset, the situation that, according to San Francisco Opera, illustrates her pluck and tenacity), who acts as a convenient reminder of an absent mother, and disappears when the protagonist forgets to shave. Micaela. These are loose ends, that we don’t know what becomes of her, or the mother, and unfortunately I just don’t care.

And that’s the problem so far. When I see this I feel like I’m watching ART. Levine waves at the audience before each act, and after each act the players come out and bow and hold hands and we’re constantly reminded, as if their wrinkles didn’t do it for us, that this isn’t real. It’s ART. They each spent a minimum of five years learning how to breathe properly, and the emotions they draw from us aren’t nearly so important as the emotions we imagine should be drawn from us. It’s heavy-handed.

“Complex problems confront us when we seek to define ‘meaning.’ . . .Cone maintains that when the [composer] sets a poem to music, he actually chooses ‘one among all its forms,’ that ‘he delimits one sub-set within the complete set of all possible forms.’ This unique concept, Cone suggests, ‘might be termed a latent form of the poem; and . . . the composer’s task is to make the latent form patent by presenting it through the more specific, inflexible, and immediate medium of music.’ In summary, he asserts: ‘Ultimately there can be only one justification for the serious composition of a song; it must be an attempt to increase our understanding of the poem.’“

This reminds me of the second line in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise: “His father, an ineffectual, inarticulate man with a taste for Byron,” a line that effects in me considerable discomfort. Art must be created for somebody, mustn’t it? I mean, somebody who gleans something more than cocktail-talk from it. And to sit here and watch an orchestra of secretaries, and a stage of secretaries (witness: Micaela’s two minutes of sighs and breast-clutching as she awaits the audience to shut the hell up), and to be told that This is ART, this is brilliance…I simply cannot believe it. Anything gained or understood from this must be purely from our own expectations of its gravity and depth, not from what’s actually there. What should be a combination of all these forms at their greatest heights rather feels like mediocrity, mediocrity, mediocrity, and I feel nothing, though I swear I try.

Anyway, I suppose what I’m getting at is that I enjoy What a Girl Wants so much because even if I don’t believe it, I can at least pretend to believe it because Amanda Bynes’ prettiness merits it. I pretend because I want it to be real because she’s pretty. So, in short, if opera is to gain my adoration, either the players must become younger, or the stories all have to be about old people and whatever their concerns happen to be, I dunno, groceries or Medicare.

Obviously, I saw the 1987 version from the Met. I read “Sense and Sound in Georges Bizet’s Carmen”, by Judith Nowinski. The French Review © 1970. And the lectures I heard from the Royal Opera House and the San Francisco Opera, I honestly don’t have any details on them.

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Byron – Occasional Pieces (1810)

It seems particularly apt to come across this short poem today. Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ was never something that made much sense to me, nor did Anais Nin’s final rebuffing of Henry Miller, and so on, so that all those terrible things we learned would be finally obliterated by feminism, well, I begin to wonder if there’s more to it than that. Do I believe in love? Yes. There is the love of a parent for his or her child, and there is the love of a man for another man or woman. And I think that covers it. Do I believe in love? Not really. I think it’s mostly a struggle of power, and it just happens to find an easy vehicle for cruelty when everyone is so desperately exposed. One year ago I had spend significant amounts of time in a cockroach filled shoebox of a bathroom watching a girl piss, a girl who refused to let such trivialities get in the way of conversations about Fitzgerald or Henry James, and since she also refused to let such trivialities like eating get in the way of her drinking, well, I saw her drink for six days straight without eating so much as one bite, and we would spend the nights sneaking cigarettes in my room after her boyfriend fell asleep and we’d sneak away from him. We grew close by drinking in the middle of a country road while the moon was large, surrounded by dark farms, and when trucks would come barreling down the road we would hold on to each other, determined not to move, determined, until the absolute last second when, holding on to each other, we’d save each other’s lives by flinging ourselves away from the middle, roll into the dirt. When we came back, everyone was angry at us, they’d all waited up, we couldn’t feel our bodies, and they never had any idea of what we really did when we went out there that night, their imaginations ended at the word sex. We were really out there discussing how unfair it had never been necessary that any of them had to work for anything in their whole lives. She knows how to love, I think. I’ve seen her love. She proposes to me at least once a month.
“For the record,” I tell her, “I haven’t been answering or returning your calls for the past two weeks for a reason. It hasn’t just been ignorance.”
“Really?!” she asks excitedly.
“Yes. We can discuss it another time.”
“Tell me!”
“It’s because last time we spoke you went on a drunken tirade and said things that were entirely unacceptable.”
“Oh, it’s because I told you to dump that bitch, I mean, she’s not a bitch, I’m sorry, she’s not, but it’s because I was telling you to dump her. I’m sorry.”
“That wasn’t all you said.”
“Oh shit! Really? Well, I was drunk, how can you expect me to be liable for–”
“You’re always drunk! Always! So you have to be liable for your words, because that’s your normal state of being.”
“Okay, okay, what did I say?”
“We’re not discussing it right now. But you broke some of my rules, and if you do it again you can be damn sure you’ll never see my face again.”
“Okay. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I said though. Do you still love me?”
“Of course I still love you.”
“And you’ll still marry me?”
“You and everyone else. Why is it that the only people who want to marry me are in danger of liver failure before hitting age 28?”
“And kidneys for me too!”
“You’re all going to fucking die, and just leave me, helpless and alone and unloved because I’m the unlucky one. Many years ago I had a dream that I was being shot, and my feet were attached to the floor and I couldn’t fall, and I desperately wanted to die, I hated being shot so much, but until I fell over I couldn’t die, and I couldn’t fall. I’m afraid it’s true.”
“We still have time left. Think about it, k? I’m serious. We would never be really in love, but, but we’d still be amazing.”

I came to believe that love was emotionally about punishment, practically about money, and now, I’m quite sure, it’s about power. It’s a thought that doesn’t escape me when I see how my dogs love me, how devoted they are to me, and I try not to remember that it’s because they fear me, because I hold power over them, and it’s not love: it’s subservience. But they don’t understand how I feel about them.

“Does being around your mother make you happy?”
“Not…really.”
“Then fuck her.”
“What do you mean? Should I call her and say fuck you?”
“Just fuck her!”
“I don’t understand…”
“Just forget about her. If she doesn’t make you happy, why keep her around? Why keep anyone around if they can’t provide you with something.”
“That’s a fucking heinous thing to say.”
“Think about it.”
“…you know, you’re right.”

Do I believe in love? No. Do I believe in friendship? Yes. Do I believe in firewater? Even more than I believe in friendship.

And now, the poem that spurred this whole mess:

The spell is broke, the charm is flown!
Thus is with life’s fitful fever:
We madly smile when we should groan;
Delirium is our best deceiver.

Each lucid interval of thought
Recalls the woes of Nature’s charter;
And he that acts as wise men ought,
But lives, as saints have died, a martyr.

1810 is fascinating year as far as his “occasional pieces” are concerned, because there are so few of them as compared with years prior and years following. At first I figured he was perhaps writing Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage while on his travels, but there’s no evidence of such speculation, so I have otherwise no answers. What’s particularly noteworthy during this period is that he’s a perfect poetic upstart, perhaps in the wake of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, perhaps merely because he felt himself living in the golden age of mythology, making use of his classical education, “Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ,” and making full use of all his 2,000 parts.

Well, so it goes, Byron died alone, Shelley died essentially estranged from his wife, Keats died without ever making love to his lover, the political revolutions all failed except in Greece, the sexual revolutions gave way to stifling victorianism, what was radical became obscure, what was sublime became quaint, what was humanist became theist. What hope have I now?

Chicago

Visiting cities used to exhaust me utterly, until last spring when, as recorded here, I think, I gave New York a try with a goal of being drunk the entire time, and it worked out, and since then I’ve had no problem with cities at all. Little towns, like the one Manny lived in in Connecticut, they’re easy to digest, there’s a single coffee shop, and an ATM, and really not much else that I can remember. That town is mine, I might never go there again, but I’ll be there always, nothing will change in it without my knowledge, because nothing will change.

Chicago means these things to me: one of my favorite bands is Chicago. The Smashing Pumpkins came from there and I don’t really like the Smashing Pumpkins except for that one album. Upton Sinclair. Hemmingway and his story about the option to cross the lake to Canada as a means to avoid the draft. Isabel Archer. Characters in Gatsby. Capone. Michael Jordan.

Going to a new city is like watching minor surgical procedures under local anesthesia, it happens, it happens to you, and you don’t feel a thing. I overcame this in France by walking. I suppose spending the past month or so that I’ve been back mostly sleeping has atrophied my legs and feet and I just didn’t notice until I set out on Friday morning to see what this city was really about. I will say that United Express is a wonderful airline, I was thrilled with them. And then the El to reach Chicago from O’Hare was a depressing experience, very bumpy and slow, I was quite sure I’d have to get off and have a rest, but I made it okay.

I walked around trying to find someplace to eat, and happened upon the Juicy Wine Co. whose website makes it seem as if they actually serve food, but as far as I could tell all they had was wines and dried meats. Of course, I went because I thought it must be some exciting new creation, “Juicy Wine”–so I went in, and I think I was the only person who didn’t work there, and they all looked at me and I said, “so…what is it?”
[they give an answer]
“So…it’s not anything…novel?”
“Well, we’ve been here for two years, I’m surprised you haven’t heard of us.”
“I just got here today.”
“Oh. Well, you should go upstairs, people like the upstairs.”
And with everyone looking at me, waiting for me to order, I just, what a douche, ordered some tea, a black tea I’d never heard of before, with hints of chocolate, and the truth is I wanted so much they offered but I couldn’t afford any of it.

I’ve got to remember to get a DNA sample from my dog, I feel like she’s suddenly gained some perspective on time and mortality, the expression on her face is always horrifying now, as you can tell she can’t decide if she’s done enough with her life, if she was happy, if those two times she made love to another dog could have been better, probably, because she never loved him, wondering where the rest of her children have gone, has she run enough? does she regret the time she jumped through the car window? is she embarrassed about her son? as the cancer spreads through her body is she truly content with the course of her life? her near brush with fame as she took on the Westminster Kennel Club show, flown all over the country for special training as a champion, my sweet little dog, she doesn’t even smell so bad. Yes, my darling, I will clone you, I will clone you as soon as I have the money, and I’ll make a new clone of you every year so that each time one of you kicks the bucket I won’t even really notice, it’ll be wonderful, you’ll all have the same name and when I shout it all twenty of you will come running to say hello to me, you were my first best friend, and all eighty of you will be my last, don’t eat each other when i die.

So the following day I walked only ten miles–it felt like more–but that’s probably because I was wearing Italian leather dress boots. Some seven miles into the journey a man said “shoe shine” as I walked by, and I thought to myself, “asshole,” before walking another ten steps and the sudden recognition that maybe he wasn’t criticizing me, but was rather offering me something. I spun around and asked how much. He smiled and opened the door as he said $5, more expensive than at the airport, but…hell, he was in better shape than the old men who work at the airport.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“Have you been to Mexico?” he asked.
“Are you here for business?” he asked.
“Where did you get these shoes?” he asked. Ah, now, finally, a subject I enjoy.
“Paris.”
“Ah, yes, you’d find shoes like these in France, in Spain, in Italy. And they cost you a lot?”
“No, not so much.”
“$200?”
“60-some euros.”
“What?”
“Yes.”
“They’d cost over 200 if you bought them here. I know this because I’m also a shoemaker.”
“Do you see this style of shoe often?”
“Oh no, that’s why I asked where you got them. You don’t see these here.”
And he shined them up shinier than when I bought them, so shiny that they look like Marine dress boots, so shiny that I can see my reflection in them. And then I continued on to the Art Institute to see their two paintings by Watteau, but they were closing, so I continued on to where I was heading…

i chose Clark Street because it looked most interesting, as if I might see the most on it, and it took me past Wrigley Field, whose name in my youth I was proud to know, and if I could have seen a game there, I would have, I’ve never been near a major-league stadium before. And, most importantly, the site of the Valentine’s Day massacre. The old buildings are torn down now, and it is only a parking lot, but…as I stood there and looked through the gates, it still doesn’t look like the surrounding area, there’s something darker about it, more run-down and horrific, my favorite place in the whole of the city I saw, buildings close together in ways physically impossible, a shroud of ignorance to the warmth and sunshine of the day, it was somehow delightful, somehow precisely what I wanted to see. As I continued walking I thought of how I swear I saw the garden of eden in a forest I was camping in as a boy, nobody else was around, but the image is so clear in my memory, I wonder if I was lying to myself then, and also now.

I’ve never seen so many cemeteries–like driving out of Brooklyn and just driving and driving for ages through that cemetery the highway traverses, everything about New York suddenly makes sense when you see that cemetery, everything about the world makes sense. In Chicago people die also. I would be on that schoolbus taking me to camp and the girl sitting next to me would say “if you breathe while we pass the cemetery ghosts will enter your body.” I don’t know why that’s such a scary thing to a child, to have a ghost enter your body, because I don’t know that I’d much mind it now, but, in any case, I would hold my breath, and even as I passed the cemeteries, hungry, and all these wonderful restaurants, I figured it might be a bad idea to eat in front of a cemetery. There are signs saying that out of respect for the dead you cannot allow your dog in the cemetery, there’s a sign saying out of respect for the dead you cannot allow your dog in the Vietnam War memorial. I went to a coffee shop and called Joe to see if he was in town, but he wasn’t, but we were talking when I guy sat down next to me and began talking rapidly about Chris Brown being sent to jail for committing only three felonies, what the fuck, if every time someone committed three felonies he was sent to jail, hell, everyone would be in jail, well, I don’t fucking care, what’s this word mean? Gouge? What’s that mean? Does that mean to hit? And I sit there with Joe yapping to me in one ear about what he’s going to do with the arts community of Cleveland, as their guru, and in the other eat this guy yapping about beating the shit out of his grandma and how, well, who fucking cares about Chris Brown because he’s my rival and if he’s in jail I can finally just take his place, good riddance, I’m a singer, hey, look, look man, this guy here, he’s an actor, he’s got a show, I’m an actor too, I’m a singer and a rapper and an actor and I had an audition for a TV show yesterday and the secretary in the lobby said I probably did well so I’m expecting them to give me a call anytime now, I’m feeling pretty good about all that. Joe’s conversation finished, and this guy keeps talking, telling me his life story, crack-addict mother, father in prison, what it’s like to be young, gifted, and black in America, hell, he’s been everywhere, he almost got strangled to death by Luther Vandross’s men because when they introduced him to the Temptations he was all like “so what? what are you gonna do for me?” And then he mentioned he was gay. And it all became clear. This guy wasn’t looking at me like a person, actually, he wasn’t looking at me like an ear, he was touching my arm because he was looking at me like a piece of meat. I don’t mind being hit on, okay, I’ve always minded being hit on in the past, and this time too, I hate being hit on, but that’s because the right person has never hit on me. There you have it. So now, I have this grand-matricidal guy who wants to stick his penis in me, and he’s cried twice, and he’s been talking to me for over an hour, I mean, Jesus, how many fucking lame stories can he possibly have if he’s only been alive for 22 years? And suddenly, thank the good lord, I get a business call about some freelance work I’ve been doing, actually, more like an advertisement calling to make sure I understand how to use their product and let me know about specials. I take the call and the guy runs out to smoke a cigarette with his friend, a big Native American who’s been trying to come in and keeps getting shooed out by my new friend. There’s no way to escape–he’s got me cornered in here, no back door, and he’s standing in front of the only exit. I get my scarf on and pack my bag. His scary friend comes in and demands “____wants your information.”
“My information. Right. Do you have a pen?” And I write down a fake name and number. When I leave my new friend takes my hand and won’t let it go, he hands me a piece of paper with endless ways to contact him, tells me to call anytime. “Well, I’ll be in town for two weeks, so you call me too” I tell him. He says, I should probably let you go, but he still doesn’t drop my hand, and he asks if he can come see me perform tonight. “I wish you could, but we’re sold out tonight.”
“Can’t I just…you know, drop by?”
“There’s fire regulations, and the doorman won’t let you in, there’s already too many people, you know, fire regulations, we’ll get in trouble.”
“When can I see you?”
“Sunday, 3pm.”
“Okay.”
I’d be a thousand miles away by then. He dropped my hand and I scampered off and turned the first corner and then hurried down alley after alley, searching closely for any signs of black people…terrified of blacks because…one wants to make love to me. I tell my brother this and he begins listing rules for when you’re allowed to shoot somebody legally, and how it’s against the law to fire warning shots. You say “leave me alone I have a gun.” you pull it out. and if he still doesn’t turn his back, you kill him. “i’ve been trained to put two shots to the chest and one to the head before he even hits the ground…that’s also illegal outside the military. when you fire, you do so for one reason: to thwart an attack. once the danger has passed, any injury you inflict is entirely illegal.” a few blocks down i got back onto Clark and continued my wonderful journey through the heart of Chicago!

As I crossed over to the ‘miraculous mile’ or whatever they call it, I grew cold, my feet hurt, and I realized I could separate myself from the pain, I could stand up straight, walk normally, and despite the pain, actually my socks were bloody in multiple places when I changed them later on, I could be apart from it because it didn’t frighten me, but this feeling of dread came over me, a vast feeling of aloneness, that hasn’t quite subsided yet, I feel as if I’m standing over the abyss that is time and waiting for it to close, or shake, or smoke, or something, anything, and rather, I’m just getting older as I wait. I walked the rest of the way. I spent most of the weekend panicky because a stomach flu was going around and I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s a message from god, and if so, what’s the message? And everyone probably thinks I’ve lost my marbles, which I have, but…well, I was on edge, Chicago, on edge.

Here, I’ll end on a positive note. Everyone was really friendly. That’s how the midwest is, friendly, which I find creepy, I’m so used to coldness. Actually, the only person who was unfriendly was still only unfriendly in a friendly-sarcastic way. It went like this, at 1am as I checked out from CVS and, since they didn’t give me a bag, I was in the process of taking one for myself, and the checkout guy said.
“Oh, you wanted a bag.”
“Yes, please.”
“I thought maybe you wanted to save the environment.”
“At first I did, but then I remembered I have quite a long way home.”
“You have a long way home. Right. That makes sense. A long way home. So you want a bag. Yeah, okay.”

Ass.

Otherwise, everyone was friendly. In fact, the guy sitting across the aisle from me on the plane home wouldn’t shut the hell up. He’d wait for me to blink my eyes open or reach for a gummy bear or something and begin asking me inane questions to which I’d provide vapid answers and try to shut my eyes again. And then while we were out for dinner last night the guy sitting next to us begged us to let him tell his story, because he’d just now been released from jail and was getting some dinner and his girlfriend wouldn’t even come home from the arcade to see him, and he had to tell his whole boring story. And even after his story was finished and we’d all agreed it was a wonderful story he should call the newspapers with, and then turned back around, he insisted on telling us more. What I mean is that everyone is friendly, in the whole world, the whole goddamn world is friendly, and there’s a great big cloud over my head, and I check my face for wrinkles, I love showering.

Chicago is a nice city, and I wouldn’t mind living there. But there’s something about the coast that makes me feel more comfortable, as if when the apocalypse comes I’ll be able to escape the wrath of god quicker if only because the ocean’s an hour away and i could always swim to france if satan gave me magic powers!