Welcome to the first in my Opera Spotlight series!
I decided to start this series to give novices and experts alike all the tools they would need to watch or listen to a specific opera, either for the first time or as an old favorite. I tend to think that going to a new opera with some sort of preparation will give you a better shot of enjoying it than going in blind. One tip I generally give opera-goers is that before you go, listen to about ten excerpts so that when you hear them, you recognize them! Think about going to a rock concert: we all love when the band chooses an old classic that's one of our favorites. The same applies to any familiarity you have with a piece of music.
So let's get started!
Why I chose THIS opera
I wanted to begin with Carmen for a few reasons. Carmen, written by Georges Bizet, is one of my absolute favorite operas. It has drama, intrigue, and, of course, beautiful music. In fact, you probably know about three or four of the tunes from this just from commercials or cartoons! As well, this is a really great starter opera. The story is exciting, the characters are real, the sets are usually beautiful, and the music is truly spectacular.
Why I chose THIS recording
As I wrote in "A Beginner's Guide to Singers Playlist," Maria Callas is someone that you simply have to know if you're interested in opera. She may not have the most beautiful voice, but boy, is she exciting. Opera, as an art form, was meant to be watched, not listened to, but if you're going to listen to Carmen, Callas will show you exactly what is happening with the way she sings, articulates her words, and spits out text. She is one of the few singers who acts with her voice, not just with her body, face, or eyebrows!
Carmen is one of the meatiest characters in all of opera. She knows what she wants, and fate is her god. It's fascinating to watch, listen to, and especially sing. Which is why Callas asked to record the role! Carmen is actually a part written for a lower female voice, a mezzo-soprano. Maria Callas is a soprano, but she wanted to sing the role, and she was famous enough that they let her record it!
The plot AND the excerpts
Now, every opera begins with an overture, and that is the first excerpt I chose to include. What's an overture? An overture is the opening piece of music that establishes the feel of the opera, as well as many of the themes that will appear throughout.
Carmen begins with an overture that is exciting - cymbals immediately wake you up and get your heart thumping! The opening theme is the same that returns to represent the toreador and bull-fighting. Because Carmen happens in Seville, there's a Spanish flourish to the music. Bizet is an incredible story teller, so he wants to begin the opera with something that will truly excite you.
The curtain rises on ACT I to reveal the stage bustling with activity. We're in a town square, and the soldiers are waiting for the changing of the guard. As they wait, a young woman appears onstage - her name is Micaëla and she is looking for one of the soldiers, a man named Don José. They know each other from the village that they grew up together in. He isn't there, and she departs.
Don José then appears onstage as the factory bell rings - it's time for the women who work in the cigarette factory to take their break. This brings us to excerpt two. The men like to watch the women on their break and the women like to flirt with them. I included this excerpt here because the orchestra so beautifully imitates the rising of smoke from a cigarette as the women take their smoking break. You'll get a chance to hear the men's chorus and then the women's. The men then decry - "But where is our little Carmen?" She's their favorite to ogle at and flirt with.
This then leads into the third excerpt and the most famous aria from the opera. Do you recognize it yet? This is known fondly as the Habanera, and it is Carmen's entrance aria. I included this in my "Beginner's Guide to Opera Playlist," so you can head over there to read the lyrics and the musical description of it. Essentially, Carmen encapsulates her theory of love in this way: "If you don't love me, I love you. And if I love you, beware!" She then throws a rose and marks out her next target: Don José.
As the women file back into the factory, Micaëla returns and gives José a letter from his mother. In it, his mother asks him to return home and marry Micaëla. As he decides to follow his mother's wishes, the cigarette factory suddenly empties as it turns out that Carmen has attacked one of the other girls. She is promptly arrested and José is given control of her.
We then come to excerpt four, where Carmen is under José's care. She begins to sing to herself and beguiles him into untying her hands with promises of nights of dancing and passion at Lillas Pastia's tavern when he frees her. She has fallen in love with him, and he has fallen under her spell. This is another incredibly famous aria, and as Carmen seduces José, you can hear his desperation. Her power is so strong, he is already beginning to slip. Another interesting thing about this excerpt is that she is singing in the world of the opera! Everything in opera is supposed to be understood as being spoken, but in this aria she's supposed to be singing in the world of the opera. Does that make sense? It's a little tricky to explain!
Carmen then pushes José to the ground and escapes, and he is arrested for dereliction of duty.
We now come to ACT II and excerpt five.
Two months have passed. The curtain rises to reveal Lillas Pastia's tavern that Carmen had mentioned. We hear Carmen and her two gypsy friends entertaining the soldiers and the patrons of the establishment. Each verse gets faster and faster and by the end, even the audience is breathless! Again, we see Carmen in her element: sexual, entertaining, and exciting.
She then finds out that José has been released from prison and is coming to the tavern to see her. She is excited but is interrupted in her excitement by excerpt six and the appearance of the toreador! You've gotta know this one. I addressed this as well in my "Beginner's Guide to Opera Playlist," and the toreador is as much an entertainer as Carmen is. He immediately flirts with her but she brushes him off.
As the tavern empties, Carmen and her band of gypsies discuss a smuggling project, but she chooses not to join them and instead waits for José's arrival. They leave and José appears. Carmen gives him a private dance, but grows angry when he tells her he must return to the barracks as he's still a soldier. Accusing him of not loving her enough to join her and the gypsies, José protests. Excerpt seven begins with another famous theme from Carmen that sounds a lot like Aladdin, for those who catch it! It's the fate theme, and it usually means something bad is coming around the bend.
José shows Carmen the flower she threw at him the first day they met and how he has kept it with him since then. Unconvinced, Carmen still protests that he doesn't love her, but when one of José's superior officers comes into the tavern to flirt with Carmen, José fights him. The smugglers return and tie up the superior officer, and José realizes he must now desert and flee with Carmen and the gypsies into the mountains.
In ACT III, we see the smugglers working their way through the mountains. Carmen has lost interest in José - he is not a smuggler and never was one. She sits with two of her friends, and in excerpt eight they tell their fortunes through the cards. The two friends laugh jokingly at their fortunes - this one will marry a rich old man, the other will find a passionate lover. But Carmen - Carmen hears the fate theme and she turns over the cards to reveal that she and José will die!
As the stage clears, Micaëla enters, having asked a guide to bring her up into the mountains. She is there to find and bring home José. In excerpt nine, she prays to God that He protect her and give her strength to help her save José from the clutches of Carmen. Listen to how different her music sounds from all of Carmen's! It's not sensual - it has a profound seriousness and intensity in her belief in God. There's a repeating figure in the accompaniment as she bolsters her strength and takes comfort in the presence of God when no one else is around.
Micaëla then hides as she hears a gunshot ring out. José is on watch and heard someone coming up - it's the toreador, here to pursue Carmen. When José realizes this, they fight but are interrupted when the smugglers return to the stage. The toreador declares his love for Carmen, who shows interest, but leaves at the behest of the group and José. As he does, he invites all of the gypsies to his next bullfight.
All of a sudden, one of the smugglers discovers Micaëla. She tells José that his mother is dying, and he leaves with her, vowing that he will return.
And we've reached the final act! Act IV begins as everyone files in to see the toreador's bullfight! As the toreador enters, Carmen is upon his arm - they sing to each other of their love. As they're about to enter, Carmen sees José and chooses to stay outside. And this is the final excerpt - the entirety of their argument. José is still in love with her - he begs her to return to him. She responds that she would never. He says that she must, or he will kill her and she screams that she would rather die. Throwing a ring that he gave her in his face, she spits, "Tien!" which means, "There!" Listen for this in the recording - Callas' delivery is chilling. Truly. José stabs her and holds her in his arms, saying that he killed the one whom he adored.
And that's the end. It's an amazing opera.
And now you're equipped to go see it live or watch it here! Are you interested? Do you think you'll see it, if you can? Let me know down below!
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Have you ever read the book "The Secret Garden?"
It's a really lovely story, more geared toward children, but nevertheless moving. Lucy Simon must have thought so too, because she put pen to paper and wrote the music for the musical adaptation. Lucy Simon is Carly Simon's sister and a fantastic songwriter. I've never seen the musical, but I listened to the recording all the time growing up - my sister and I would even put on a two-woman show and play all the characters and sing all the songs together. It was a blast.
The story, though, is not a light-hearted one for the most part. In this song, Lily's ghost, a woman who passed away years ago, sings to her still-living husband about her love for him and why she still feels guilty for having left him alone. As he is a hunchback, the fact that a woman as beautiful and charming as Lily could love him was unbelievable; when she died, he lost everything, including his confidence in himself.
Singing this is not easy; vocally, it isn't too difficult, but emotionally it's hard not to imagine speaking to my own husband if, God forbid, something were to happen to me. The reason this song is so affecting is because we don't often imagine the pain of the person who passed away, who sees the world from beyond and hopes that everyone is well. There's a reason that the play "Our Town" is so emotional - it's a similar situation.
The way that Lucy Simon writes this song is brilliant because she begins with almost nothing happening underneath Lily's melody; it isn't until she addresses her husband directly, saying that she feels his pain and can't ask him to move on but that he has to do it himself, that the full orchestra comes in to support her voice. That's exactly when Lily would need the support of the orchestra. Then, as she asks for his forgiveness, the vocal line gets higher, which sounds more like she's pleading with him. She wants him to move on.
What do you think of this song? Have you heard of this musical? Let me know in the comments!
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Hey! I'm Abby, the creator of Classically Abby, a commentary, opera, beauty, and lifestyle brand dedicated to looking at the world from a classic perspective. I'm the first Conservative Influencer and I'm an opera singer with three degrees in performance!