Boston Lyric Opera’s season of peripateticism begins, surprisingly, with its first-ever visit to—also the first opera production in decades in—Boston’s so-called Opera House. There BLO mounts a production freighted with the hopes and dreams of the company to be both relevant and lively. Calixto Bieito’s stripped-down, actor-driven version of Carmen recently marched and swaggered into San Francisco, where it garnered reviews ecstatic [LA Times here] and disappointed alike [BMInt’s is here], running from “tawdry and tactless” to “ A Carmen for Our Times.” Joan Anton Rechi, who is directing revivals of the production, said we can expect even more stage energy and energized singing than we might have heard in the Bay City.
Set in the arid earthiness of 1970s post-Franco Spanish North Africa, this revisionist and decidedly non-folkloric (though perhaps inadvertently kitchy and quaint in its own ritualized violence and simulated sex conventions) co-production with the San Francisco Opera runs September 23rd through October 2nd at the Boston Opera House.
Jennifer Johnson Cano returns to Boston in the title role, alongside a Don José played by Roger Honeywell. Michael Mayes and Chelsea Basler also revisit BLO, and conductor David Angus leads. Before BMInt’s extensive interviews with Angus and Rechi, we had some questions for BLO artistic director Esther Nelson.
FLE: Bieito’s productions are infamous for their shock value and often accused of privileging theatrical gimmickry over dramatic coherence and depth. As a company that has chosen to open its season with a Bieito production, how would BLO answer that? David Angus, for one, finds this Carmen compelling.
EN: I am not sure I agree with that assertion about Bieito. I believe he challenges audiences and when he chooses to be provocative and push comfort levels, his point of view is based on understanding the work in depth. One may not enjoy or agree with some of his stagings, but they are not vanity productions or the result of gimmicks.
This Carmen, one of the earlier productions of his career, is actually not so shocking. It does reflect honest conflict situation and does not shy away from violent situations that are, after all, inherent in the opera, and particularly in the novel. While it is not a postcard version of an imagined ideal, as is often portrayed with this opera, it really just tells the story in a petty traditional way but with real strong emotions. These are real people! There is also a scene of a torero dancer performing the “moon baptism,” that is entirely based on a practiced Spanish bullfighter ritual, which includes brief nudity. I find it one of the most spiritual moments in the opera, when man and “beast” confront each other alone, without the noisy bullfight arena festivities.
Everyone will make their own decision about this production, of course, but I also think it is a wonderful opportunity for our Boston audience to experience what has become one the most iconic Carmen productions of our time. We have no plans for a future Calixto Bieito production at this time but we are certainly not ruling it out.
And now questions for the stage director Joan Anton Rechi.
You’re here for four weeks. How often is it that an opera company gives you that long for rehearsal?
JAR: Not so often—three is the normal timing that we have to do a pro production. But with this Carmen, you need time if you want it to work really well in terms of acting. And if you want build real energy onstage, you need even more time. It’s not just to do the blocking!
I think four weeks is a perfect period of time—two to rehearse all the staging and then two more to put it together with the orchestra, to put it onstage, to do the lighting, to do costumes … you know, it’s a long process.
Especially in a show like this Carmen, the big chorus and the supernumeraries are characters in themselves, and they need to move and act like individuals. In some opera choruses, everyone’s very stiff. I just saw the video of Philipp Stölzl’s Cavalleria Rusticana in Salzburg, where every character in the chorus seems like an individual. Is this something that you are able to do in four weeks? How many people are you going to have onstage?
We have 60 including the chorus. And if we include the principals, 70. For that we need a little more time than normally, because if you want to play with the energy, you have to see individual characters, not only in the principals. You also have to see this in the supers, and also in the chorus.
Do you give individual coaching, like “So, I want you like this,” and “You, I want to do that?”
I had individual sessions with the supers, and then with the chorus all together. And then I tried to use the time to, yes, to create these small characters with some of the people. In this production we try to create an atmosphere of freedom to let them have the sensation that they can drive things; and then they propose a lot of things. Finally, I’m the one saying, “Okay, this is good. This is good. Keep it, continue, okay, right.” To treat them individually and not simply to declare “the chorus is entering, or now, the chorus goes”….
Because that’s so boring.
Yeah. And I’m repeating all the time to them the importance of the chorus and the importance of the supers in this production. They are going to give, really, all this atmosphere. It’s important.
When the inanimate scenery is so limited, you need to have human scenery.
Yes. The day I made the presentation to BLO I said, “This is a very minimalistic set and costumes. You will see there is nothing—only one floor and one cyclorama, and then different elements for each act, but very simple. The telephone box, the flag, and then the bull and the cars: there’s nothing about that typical big Grand Opera set, it’s about energy. And I have to say so far that this production will be fantastic. They are playing so well; the chorus, for example, yesterday did a fantastic rehearsal. Some people were sitting when we did “Les voici, les voici, voici la quadrille!” You saw the show, it’s the rogue number, when they’re watching the torero parade, and some of the singers who were sitting, they were really touched by it all because they are playing their roles really, really, really well and were really happy with the work that they did. But especially to create these individual characters, you must give them a sensation of more freedom; they have to feel free to try everything onstage. And I’m really happy with the work they’re doing. I think it will be really great.
This is a production where that is more important. You’re in our gorgeous movie/vaudeville palace with gold leaf and then the curtain opens … and you feel like you’re in a plain blackbox establishment.
And so the eye needs something to compete with all the gold filigree, but as soon as the show opens, there’s movement. The initial male sadism feels shocking and angry, though. You have this fellow in Jockey shorts doing punishment laps around the soldiers, which is not in Carmen normally, but it certainly wakes you up; you realize the minute the curtain opens, “This is not a regular night at the opera.”
I think the first thing is that it’s theater. The conception was to do theater. And for that, it’s important to work really well on the acting of everybody. You cannot just go onstage and sing to do the job right. You have to act—not just Carmen, but everybody must be in that direction. This is one thing. The second one is that we wanted to do something very, very Spanish without being folkloristic, you know.
When you say “we”, you mean—
It’s Calixto Bieito, the original director’s staging; Mercè Paloma, the costume designer; Alfons Flores, the set designer; and me. We were the team preparing the conception and the production. And we wanted to do something very, very Spanish, but without falling in the folkloristic element. No kitsch! Because we were speaking about that, when we were watching Carmen in other productions, and I saw many, because it’s an opera that I like. It’s almost always done as in Disneyland, you know.
When you see all these flamenco dresses, this is not authentically Spanish! This is not realistic for us, as you know, because people don’t go around dressed like that, even in medieval times, except for particular weeks, for parties. You know it’s not everyday dress.
This is 19th-century exoticism.
Yes. We have to remember that librettist Prosper Mérimée wasn’t actually in Spain, and that Bizet wasn’t in Spain … then it’s a fantasy about Spain.
It’s similar to a “Turkish” march such as Mozart would write.
Yes, it’s this kind of sensation.
One thing that bothered me, by the way—well, there were several things—but one that this brings up is that in the production of this opera in San Francisco, Carmen didn’t play her own castanets! Somebody in the orchestra did. Now that is something that I’ve never observed before. Was that staging decision your idea or hers?
No, not hers. It’s a production idea.
So this Carmen is not going to do it?
I have to say that in San Francisco, Irene Roberts, who played Carmen, knows how to play castanets really well. No, our intention was to take that coloristic element out of the production, to go more for the soul of the piece.
Do you mean the novel, the opera, or both?
The first thing is that Bizet wanted to be really close to the novel because he was a big fan of the novel, and the novel, it’s much, much stronger and much more heartfelt. The relations are much harder, and Carmen is a much more negative character. And Bizet was a big fan of the novel, and he wanted to do something very strong, but he was not able to do it because of the conventions of the time, no?
It wasn’t a grand opera, really, at first. It was an opéra comique.
An opéra comique, right. But even for an opéra comique it was too much, it caused a big scandal at the premier. Some years earlier, when Rossini did Cenerentola, he changed the shoe for two bracelets because it was forbidden to show the foot of a woman onstage. We wanted to bring back that sensation of something forbidden—to show a new approach to the piece, because we think that this goes back to the origin of the piece. You know, it was a big scandal at Carmen’s premiere. People were throwing stones against the theater because the people were thinking that it’s impossible to see a woman like that onstage.
Is anything forbidden now onstage?
There are still things that are forbidden. Normally, we are used today to see much, much harder-core things on television. Even in theater, but not in opera. The problem is always with getting reality into the opera. Even in Europe people sometimes think, “No, this is too much,” but if you go to the cinema you see much racier things.
But compared with other performances of Carmen, this certainly is angry.
But it’s because the piece is like that.
To me, the production with some of the men topless and nude, and Carmen fully clothed was almost more about bonding among the soldiers than it was about Carmen. Is this a gay Carmen?
No, no … it’s a combination. I think it’s a combination between the soldiers who are a very important element in the [Prosper Mérimée] novel [from almost 30 years earlier], and also in the opera. It was a way to show the brutality of this male universe surrounding Carmen. It’s something that we used to approach the brutality of the piece through the novel. In the novel, for example, when Carmen starts the relationship with Don José, she’s married to another smuggler, and then at a certain point she says to Don José, “I think the best thing you can do is to kill my husband, because now I’m with him.” Don José kills Carmen’s husband—that’s the first killing he does in the novel, because she convinces him. That means that it’s a brutal story.
You know, sometimes we forgot the real plots. For example, when the people tell me about Don Giovanni, I say, “Don Giovanni starts with rape and a murder. That means it starts with sex and violence.”
Well, sex and violence, yes, but I don’t think that it’s a murder. It was a legitimate duel—he says, “Don’t make me do this—”
So that’s not murder. That’s sex and violence.
With sex and violence, I think you can do it in a traditional way with all period costumes, or you can do it modern, but it’s still a story of sex and violence at the beginning.
Throughout the whole thing.
Carmen is a story of violence. It’s a very violent story, and in the news—
Just this week, there was a story about a Marine in basic training allegedly being forced to commit suicide because he was brutalized by his drill sergeant, and that immediately made me think of the opening scene in Carmen, where you have this soldier running punishment laps in his underwear until he falls … so it’s brutal from the beginning.
Yeah, it’s brutal from the beginning, a story that happens in this brutal universe. And for that, the idea to present an image that give clues to the audience of the kind of universe this opera is set in. They are living these roles, you know. With that poor runner at the beginning, you think, “Oh, okay, it’s a universe where life and death are really close.” And this makes the characters live their love and their passion in a very strong way, because they know that they, you know, they can die tomorrow. That it’s very easy to die, and for that reason, everything is so passionate and so real. These are real soldiers, not opera chorus soldier.
In Freudian terms, is the conspicuous stage flagpole just a flagpole? Because you see a woman hoisted on hoisted on it and someone’s mounting her…is the flagpole just a flagpole?
I like that question because it’s more in the way you are reading things as a spectator. It’s just a flagpole, but it’s also the center of the male universe.
So it’s male.
It’s male. You can read it also as a totem or as the male sex.
So it isn’t just a flagpole?
No, it’s a symbol.
When you’re talking about how Bizet wanted to follow the Mérimèe novel and was interested in having more violence and realism than he could get away with, why did he create the character of Micaëla, who is so gentle and soft, and why have you made her vulgar? Why does she give the chin-thumbing gesture?
This is not vulgar.
It is vulgar.
All of the characters are poor people, you know, without learning.
Micaëla was not in the novel. Bizet created Micaëla to have the contrast, mezzo and soprano.
But it’s also purity and wantonness, isn’t it?
Purity? I think, in the way we want to read the character, the first thing is that we have a lot of information about Micaëla in the dialogue scenes. You know that in the complete version, there is a lot of dialogue.
But you’re not having much dialog.
No, we’re not having the dialogues, but reading that piece, you can have more information, and they said about Micaëla that she was an orphan, and that Don José’s mother adopted her, but they treat her a little bit as a servant. Imagine: if she’s a woman in love with Don José, being part of the family but not treated as well as the rest of the family.… You know, she travels alone from the Basque country to Seville. To see Don José, alone in that time, in a place surrounded by smugglers—a maelstrom, you know—she must be a strong character.
So she can’t be a delicate little thing.
No she can’t. It’s really impossible. And we have some clues to give the sensation that she’s in reality trying to manipulate Don José, because she’s in love and she wants him desperately, and for that, she will do everything. For example, if Don José’s mother is dying for real, why is this not the first thing she says in the first act? Why is it the last thing she says in the third act: “José, your mother’s dying?” The reason is that she tries to make Don José go back to their small town because of her, but finally, when she’s not able to do that, she says, “Okay, you will come with me. If it’s not for me, it will be for your mother. It’s a kind of confrontation, you know, between them, and I think this makes a more interesting characterization, because it’s more interesting, always, onstage when no one is entirely good and no one is entirely bad.
But it’s still beautiful and pure-sounding musically.
Yes, because she wants to show to everybody that she is so nice.
So you think she’s lying?
Yes. And there is something that hints about that even in the music. I was speaking about that with David Angus, the musical director, and he agreed completely. During Micaela’s aria, she says, “Vous me donnerez du courage, / vous me protégerez, Seigneur!” “You will protect me, Lord.” When she speaks to God, it’s sweet, but she tells God “You have to do this. You’re going to give me this.” It’s strong, even in the music!
Who was responsible for the translations and the surtitles? Instead of saying coquette it says bitch at one point now.
The theater, I imagine, in San Francisco.
Do you know whose surtitles were used?
So that’s not part of the package that you provide when directing.
No—no, no, no, no no. The theaters have the translation. We use the French original version for singing.
So they’re singing the actual words in the opera, but in San Francisco they had a very contemporary sort of modernization, because coquette and bitch aren’t the same thing.
No, no, no, no, no, no.
So I’ll have to ask management what they’re saying in the surtitles here.
To the ending: I don’t want to give away anything, but in the end, Don José drags Carmen off the stage. Typically he just waits for the officers to come and arrest him, and there he was acting like a caveman, and I found that a little jarring. Why did that happen?
There are two things in the finale. The first one is that he carries her, like if she was the bull. If you see the corridas, you will see this in the plaza de toros. When the bull is dead, they carry him like that, and that’s the idea. To have Don José carrying Carmen, like a bull at the end of a corridas. But the most important thing in all of the production, especially in the finale, was that we didn’t want to treat it in a romantic way. We wanted to treat it as domestic violence.
Or bullring violence.
She’s the bull and he’s the torero.
When I was a kid and, in Spain, a man was killing his wife, the newspaper called it a “passion crime” – crime passionale. It’s “domestic violence” today, you know, because we have changed our mind about that. We tried to change that as well in this staging … not to see Don José as a romantic hero but as a domestic-violence perpetrator.
But now you need a sequel, because Don José isn’t arrested before the opera ends.
No, he will be arrested. He will be arrested.
Yes. No, no, no, you don’t have to wait.
For example, in the recordings you listen to from the ’60s, all the last-act recordings, Carmen is provoking him to kill her. It’s “Cette bague autrefois” (This ring that you gave to me, I give it back to you), and normally it’s “Cette bague autrefois, / tu me l’avais donnée, / tiens!” And this, all this, goes as a provocation to Don José. As a spectator, you understand why he kills her.
In this production, we try to do it so it’s Don José’s decision. There’s no provocation coming from Carmen. He’s not a hero, he’s a jealous man saying to her, “Oh, you will be mine – or death!” and “No one else anymore will have you – only mine” and “No? You don’t want to continue with me? Then death to you.”
Tell about how the chemistry with the three main characters in the Boston version, because in the San Francisco production I didn’t think there was great chemistry between the Carmen I saw on that night and Don José or Escamillo.
Here we have a fantastic chemistry, I have to say. Here they are all working in the same level. With Jennifer Johnson Cano and Roger Honeywell, they have fantastic chemistry in reality, whereas Carmen and Don José don’t have too many moments to show their chemistry in the story.
There’s no conventional bedroom scene in your production.
There is a sex scene with a blanket the floor in the end of the second act.
When she drops her underwear?
Yes, her underwear.
But it’s not in a bedroom. By the way, I said in my review that a Carmen who lived in a warm climate wouldn’t be wearing underwear.
It’s true, that’s a possibility….
Carmen never never said “I love you”, in the present tense—she said, “I think I was loving you” or “I think I can love you.” In the first act, she says, “I will love you. If you let me escape, I will love you,” and in second, she says, “I thought I loved you” in past tense, but never in present tense. Never.
So you don’t think there needs to be romantic moments between the two. But with Escamillo it needs to be very romantic.
Because she says, “Yes, I love you” immediately. In the fourth act, she says, “I love you, Escamillo, and I never loved no one the way I loved you.” Then I think the good chemistry must be between Carmen and Escamillo, not between Carmen and Don José.
Is that happening in this production?
A lot. You will see.
What about chemistry between Escamillo and Don José?
This must be more macho: alpha male fighting with both. Yes, I think everyone in the company here has fantastic chemistry. And Carmen, with Escamillo, with Don José … I think you will love the way we do it.
Another thing that I missed was that the women typically—maybe you regard this as kitsch—but typically the fight scenes with the cigar ladies are titillating. In this production, there wasn’t as much violence in the fight scene between Carmen and Manuelita as I have seen in some productions.
Because normally you see the fight between Carmen and Manuelita, and here you don’t see the fight—they’re telling about the fight.
I missed that and I missed women rolling the cigars on their thighs. But that’s because it’s what you don’t want …
Yes, that’s some kitsch element of the sort I wouldn’t want to show, really.
But there is in many productions a lot of violence among the women, and it’s meant to be titillating.
I think here you will see much more violence in the fighting among the women. Here, the chorus is doing really well in the fight.
More than in San Francisco?
You will see more violence than in San Francisco. I think you will love this more here.
And then what about the nude matador/toreador?
This is something that happens for real. It’s a kind of superstition between the toreadors. The real matadors, before they debut in the plaza, the first time they get into the plaza, with the last full moon, they go to the fields where the toros are and they do the movements with the toros. They commune with the full moon to have a good luck. It’s a kind of superstition, and it’s called “moon baptism.” It’s something realistic that we wanted to put in the show.
If you had had a perfect production, would you have wanted Escamillo to do that himself? If you had everything as you wanted it, rather than some dancer?
Hmm, I don’t know.
It sort of would make sense, because Escamillo was going to be fighting the bull soon thereafter.
Yeah, it’s a possibility, you know … but normally when they do that, they are very young toreros. It’s before the first time they fight a bull. And Escamillo represents an already famous torero. It shows something like the wish of a young torero to become Escamillo.
There’s a Spanish film with Javier Bardem, with this image called “Moon Baptism.”
So how dim is the lighting going to be?
Very dim, yeah. I don’t know the details yet, we have to start rehearsing in the theater first.
I wrote in my review, as a joke, that you couldn’t see the best parts.
[chuckle] It’s true.
I mean, if you’re going to have a nude scene, you don’t need to be coy about it. Especially in Boston or San Francisco … it’s not forbidden here anymore.
You see so much more in films and the television, you don’t have to be surprised to see a naked man. I’m sure you are not shocked as a spectator.
There’s nothing that’s really extremely shocking. It’s just a feeling overall of anger and male violence that is unusual in this.
But this the story, I think. You know, the story goes in that direction, really. This kind of playing in the first act …. Zuniga (the officer) wants to bring Don José to the prison because of the fighting, right. Then, in the second act, Carmen is dancing for him … it’s this kind of relation between law and outlaw all living together. Everything is very mixed in this universe where the men think that they can do everything they want with a woman, like to kill a woman because she doesn’t want to continue with him.
For example, Dancaire or Remendado in the quintet says, “No, you have to come with us.” “No way, Carmen, you come with us.” Okay, it’s a very brutal male universe, really where this is like that.
Do you think that there are any examples where your staging or Bieito’s staging is fighting the music?
I asked David Angus about that and he said there were times when you were working together with him a lot, and where you said, “I’d like this a little faster,” and he agreed with you. So how much say do you have about the musical parts of the production?
It’s a very successful production because everything goes, really, in the same direction. It goes really well with the music, it goes really well with the dialogue, with everything. Everything goes to the soul of the piece. Everything is really working together.
Calixto Bieito is a very famous director in Europe because of the scandal generated by his works. Some new singers, when they arrive to do this Carmen, are scared about how it will work … but all the singers, all at the end, they are really, really convinced, because they see that it goes really well with the piece; it goes. There is nothing that they find difficult to do, because everything is so logical, and the story goes so well, what we’re telling.
But of course, you’re going to have only singers who are actors and stage animals who are comfortable in their skin. You’re not going to invite 400-lb divas, are you?
Sometimes it doesn’t have to be the sexy cliché of Carmen. The sexiness of Carmen is in the way she lives her life, because she’s free, following her impulse. She’s not lying to anyone. This is the sexiness of Carmen. Doing the habanera, I say to the ladies of the choir, “You are looking at her with envy, because she does what she wants.” She’s not following any convention; when she loves a man, she follows him, and when she doesn’t love him? Out! Like men, yes, most of the time.
When you go to see a famous opera like Carmen or Traviata and you are surprised, I think this is great. It is absolutely great to be surprised by something you really know know really well.
Carmen is an opera that you can see in so many different concepts. Many have never heard, for instance, of the Burlesque on Carmen that Charlie Chaplin did in 1919. That was basically a satire of the Geraldine Farrar production by Cecile B. DeMille, which was very, very stiff, conventional and very, very Hollywood … and clearly shot on the seashore of California. But Chaplin’s parody is very funny, true comique stuff and perhaps the greatest send-up of the genre (along with the Marx Bros.).
And then there’s Carmen Jones, exotic and gritty at the same time—
I love Carmen Jones.
U–Carmen eKhayelitsha is available on DVD. It’s a recent version from South Africa that had some of the same elements of police brutality that you feature in your soldiers.
You know, soldiers are soldiers. If you see this in cinemas, in the movies, they are much more realistic. But the reality with soldiers, it’s closer to Full Metal Jacket.
But you’re not an angry man–
No, no, no, no.
–and Bieito’s not an angry man.
No, no, no, no, no.
You’re just seeing this story this way.
Bieito’s very nice and he has two kids. He’s a very light.
We are trying to go to the intentions of Mérimée and Bizet.
Maybe not Bizet’s librettist Ludovic Halévy.
No, maybe not—he was more conventional, as we can see in several librettos by him.
A propos of Halévy, the other Halévy, Fromental, —I was just reading a review of La Juive, which Bieito did for the Munich Staatsoper.
Yeah, with Roberto Alagna.
Have you seen that?
What was interesting to me was that it was a modern setting and the reviewer said that you would have had no idea that Éléazar was a Jew. And that seemed to me a bit strange if that’s true, because that’s quite central to the story.
I don’t know. I didn’t see the show.
Apparently Alagna’s singing was beautiful. And his singing and the music are clearly Hebraic, but typically in productions you have some idea who this person is and why the cardinal hates him.
I saw some pictures but not really too much.
But the idea of a La Juive without a Jew … if that’s true, it’s kind of strange.
Sounds strange, I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to do something about religion more generally?
About intolerance and …
Intolerance, yeah. Always he tries to speak in more universal themes.
But sometimes it’s good to keep sight of specificity…
So are there directors you love and directors you hate?
Not hate, because I think hate is a negative. I don’t want to lose my time hating. I prefer to use my time loving. I love Calixto, of course, and the way he works the energy. And he always puts the singers in limited situations, and I think this is very interesting as a spectator. But I love, for example, Robert Carsen productions as well. He always gives a very interesting approach. He did Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera, for example. Obviously the character of what he did in Traviata at the Metropolitan is worth mentioning as well. He’s German; I think always he puts always a nice point of view in the production. For me, it’s important to be surprised when you go to the opera. And I think, “Why did he do it so in that story, in that way…?” It’s always fantastic for me.
Some productions can be museum productions and other productions shatter tradition. I think it’s important that people have some accesses to the canon as it was presented originally, because in Boston, many share a historically informed performance ideal. But in a piece like Carmen, there are so many different possibilities and everybody knows it well, it’s not as if anyone is going to forget what it would have looked like during the time of Bizet. I don’t think we should be allowed to forget what the composer expected to see.
Of course. This is something Alban Berg said once: that we don’t have to forget that all the music and all the operas were contemporary music at some point. Carmen was modern music in its time, something really, really, really modern, you know.
Except it sold a lot of tickets. Modern music today doesn’t.
Yes, that’s true. But the opera was selling out all the tickets. It was very popular, and not only for rich people, it was for everybody, everyone. And Carmen was really, really successful … not so much in Paris at the beginning, but especially in Vienna. I think it’s one of the most popular operas in the whole of history, and. I think this production goes really well to the original intentions of Bizet and Mérimée.
And now conductor David Angus speaks.
FLE: Did you have to reinforce the stage floor to carry the Mercedes—the cars, I mean, not the svelte singer.
DA: I’ve no idea.
…as they did at the Met.
[laughs] Well, that’s something else—that’s a vastly heavier machine.
When I mention things like the Mercedes cars, I’ve had friends say “What’s that got to do with Carmen?” and I just say to everybody, opera isn’t about period at all, it’s about the people onstage. If you can make it so the people are real, you’ve got a real drama. For me, that’s what it’s always about. I remember looking at Glyndebourne for years, where we would do the shows in picturebook sets—everything for real—and then we’d go to the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms and we’d do a concert performance with a 10-foot-square stage and no real costumes or set, but because they got all the motivation right, all of the relationships were totally clear in the audiences’ heads. They could play without any of the peripherals, and you got a sense of what was going on in the drama that was almost more intense than if it had been staged.
So sometimes the magic happens in the unconventional production in the unconventional space.
It’s a means to an end. If the people playing the opera really believe it and understand the interplay of the characters and can convince you with their acting and their vocal acting.… The vocal acting’s the big thing. If they’re so busy singing that they forget the vocal acting, then it doesn’t work. But if they really commit themselves, then you get the emotion … the change in emotion, the relationships in the voice … then I think the rest doesn’t get in the way.
Did you have a hand in deciding to mount the Calixto Bieito production for Boston Lyric Opera?
No, it was a decision that was made in something of a hurry because we were changing venues and we had to find something, and then, suddenly, we realized that this was an option and everybody was very excited because it’s been such a hit, such a success. It’s been appreciated, even though it has also offended some people. Sp no, it happened very suddenly. We had to find a rental and a suitable one to bring in, and suddenly realized that one of the most famous—infamous—productions around was a possibility. To be honest, we were all pretty excited about the option.
So have you had anything to do with the stage director in terms of music? There are substantial cuts.
A great deal. Carmen doesn’t exist in a pure form; there are so many versions. Even if you buy the so-called urtext, they list five different versions because there’s the Opèra-Comique version, then the grand opera version, and different places with different things. You buy one urtext and it says, “This is what it should be and here are the options,” then you buy another and it’s completely different. There is no definitive version at all. In some way that gives you carte blanche.
The Bieito show runs about 30 or 40 minutes shorter than the so-called full version.
Yes. It’s an argument every time. Do you take the composer’s initial thoughts, which are sometimes the purest, cleanest, most inspirational, or do you think the composer knew what he was doing when he changed it. Did he change it himself, or did other people make him? If it’s Bruckner, you probably take the first version, because other people made him change it.
But in this case it’s the director who is deciding which music gets to stay.
No. They presented what they did the first time and they said, “We used this version; we did this,” and then I looked through and compared it with our orchestral material and in one or two places, I said, “We don’t have this material, and we can’t do this unless we rent urtext material, which costs many, many thousands of dollars.” So we said, “We mustn’t do those things then, but we’ve got the full range of the traditional options.” And we went through all that and worked out what to do, and I asked the adapter, Joan Anton Rechi, “Do you want the long version or short version of that?” For instance, there’s a scene when two men fight. They declare their opponents and then there’s a section where they sing before they fight, and I’ve always found that rather strange. So I said, “Do you want that?” And he said, “Well, actually, in our staging, we make that work … let’s see.” We tried it, and in fact how it turns out is that they chase each other around over the top of the cars while they’re singing, and it’s very exciting. You need that bit of music—without that, the fight is gone.
Does the director have any say on musical interpretation?
Well, we’re a team. I don’t say, “This is how my Carmen goes. I’m totally involved in all the rehearsals. I see how the director does it and I try to make the music build in the same direction. If the music’s saying something that’s different to what’s going onstage, I go and talk to the director about it. I say, “You know, you’re doing this, but the music changes direction here. I need something to happen that changes the emotional temperature or something.” Or “There’s obviously a shock in the music and there’s no shock onstage, and I need you to make a shock that fits the music.” But that’s how I work with all directors. They come with a rough plan, I come with a rough plan, and then we try and make them enhance each other. Opera takes off when music and stage directing really work together.
Have you ever conducted in the pit at our so-called Opera House, the B.F. Keith Memorial Theater, and have you listened to shows there yet?
I’ve been to the ballet about two, three times, and I’ve also been in close contact with the music director there, and he’s given us advice.
Boston Ballet does subtle amplification, as I understand it.
They do, and we’re not going to, because we need to control the sound. I don’t want to let an engineer be sorting out the balance of things. We’re going to rehearse very carefully with lots of ears.
Actually, you know, that is an example of a good sound engineer at work. When we heard the Mahler Third Symphony ballet there, we were not acutely aware of the amplification. It was very well-handled.
Yeah, I heard that was very good. The problem is that we’re doing a completely different thing with the orchestra in the pit and the singers on the stage.
And you will all fit in the pit? Will you need to spread the orchestra into the boxes as the Ballet did for the Mahler?
No, the pit’s bigger than the one we’re used to. We’ll be at about 50 or something.
Broadway crowds demand it to be loud, but they don’t give their ears a chance to adjust. Having heard Sarah Caldwell in the Opera House, you know, it is enough sound. It’s probably as loud as the Met, maybe not as loud as the War Memorial Auditorium and some of the smaller opera houses, but it’s loud enough.
I don’t think that audible volume’s a problem. To see if there was a balance problem, we had somebody sing onstage, moving around. All the balcony’s good, all the front seats downstairs are good. It’s just under the overhang that presents a problem. The difficulty about that is that it’s very different from the stage and the pit.
And there are sweet spots in all these old movie houses where the dome reflects the sound into some places in the balcony beautifully.
We had somebody onstage and we walked all around. We found we could hear it perfectly well. The problem is that once you start messing with it and you’ve got a speaker here and a speaker here, anybody near the speaker is going to get a very different sound from somebody sitting a bit farther from it, and then you start picking up stuff onstage that wouldn’t normally be heard.
We decided in the end, “We’re an acoustic company. We will make it work. During rehearsals, I’m going to have a team of people moving around telling me about balance, making sure that it’s all working okay, and we will do our damnedest to make it work.” It wasn’t a happy thing, you know – sometimes things don’t mesh properly and he was uncomfortable, but he seems to be very happy with this. He’s going for it and it sounds great and—I’m not being politically correct about this—you will hear a very different sound. I was worried and I’m not worried anymore.
Without citing any specific examples, I know you like to work with directors, but there have to be moments in your career in the pit when you pay as little attention to the stage as possible and just make wonderful music.
There are times when the director just isn’t interested in the music. If they are interested in music, then I can always talk to them and we can find a middle way. But when they just don’t think the music has anything to do with them and they just come with a CD booklet and say, “It says this and you move here,” then I just don’t care. I switch off, I give up. I’ve had a few times where they just don’t care about the music and I just think, “Why are you here? Why are you doing opera?” I have to say that there are some symphony conductors that I feel like that about as well. They breeze in, they say, “Do it like this!” and then they go away through the rehearsal process, and they come back when the orchestra’s on. That’s quite the common thing and I just think, “Why are they doing it?”
How do you feel when people are laughing inappropriately at your beautiful music?
Disappointed, of course. They shouldn’t need to or be provoked into it.
But sometimes they are provoked by something stupid.
Well, if there’s something stupid onstage, you get laughter when you don’t expect it because something is misunderstood and it’s nearly always because of surtitles; I hate what surtitles do. I totally understand that the general public don’t speak fluent Italian or whatever, but I think you communicate what’s happening onstage. I think you can sing it in English and they won’t get any of it because if there’s no vocal acting and you don’t enunciate well, they won’t understand anyway. And if you sing it in Swahili, but you sing it with total conviction, people get it.
I’m against surtitles because we do all this work, build up something onstage which is very visual and physical, and then they’re glued the surtitles instead. I do it myself! It’s very hard to stop following the surtitles, and consequently miss the action.
And some surtitles have nothing to do with the original text.
That can be common. You might see a modern racy translation of what is actually old-fashioned text, and this can produce a tone that is so wrong. (I don’t mean at BLO in particular, just in general.) I find surtitles a horrible distraction.
Well, the Met solved that problem with individual surtitle screens on the back of chairs. You can turn it on and turn it off, and it’s typically a literal translation … but that’s expensive.
Yeah, and you end up in prison if you pay for it.
This production isn’t the last word or the first word on Carmen. Are you happy so far?
The revival director, Joan Anton Rechi, is great. He was the assistant at Bieito’s original. He’s very smart, he really understands music. We’ve got no barriers. I just said to him, “You know, we changed some bits of music this afternoon.” I said, “Does this give you the energy you need, because you seem to want it to move faster?” And he said, “It would be good if it went faster,” and I said, “Okay, I’ll go faster” and I tried it and it seemed to be better. You know, we’re both open, every single performance.
That is great news that you’re collaborating like that.
That’s why I do opera, and the people who don’t play a team game are a waste.
BLO’s Carmen runs September 23 to October 1.
More information at the company’s website here