I am a self-confessed opera-addict. Although I know my attitude is totally wrong, in my secret heart of hearts I would probably consign all other art forms to hell. My addiction began when I was six years old. My father always tuned into the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. I could barely understand what was going on, but even then the music, voices, and drama made a visceral impact on me. Even the primal screaming seemed so melodious!
As I matured, I figured out why this art exerted such a pull on me. Instead of expressing conflicts in words, it evokes them through singing. It uses the throbbing urgency of the human voice, rising on a sumptuous carpet of orchestral sound, to convey to us dramas with an immediacy and intensity that mere words simply cannot muster. I realize that most opera scripts would fall flat if produced as straight plays. They have to be elementary in order to give the music space to breath.
It is the music, therefore, and the compelling power of great voices soaring through an auditorium without microphones that give us stunning insights into our emotions. Opera goes straight into the very sanctuary of our hearts where our deepest, most elemental feelings well up, and so arouse us in a way that words almost never can. I think Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman made one of the funniest and most appropriate comments on how this art can rev us up. At the end of a performance of Verdi’s masterpiece, La traviata, a bejeweled old dowager sitting in the box next to her asked her what her impressions were. In a burst of spontaneous enthusiasm, Julia replied: “Gee, I was so excited I nearly pissed in my pants!”
This was exactly my reaction when we attended two performances of Bizet’s Carmen, the first in Toronto at the Canadian Opera Company, the second beamed from the Metropolitan Opera in New York onto a giant movie screen. I was struck again by the powerful depiction of human relations Carmen affords us. This is the tragedy of two individuals who should never have met, because they hold incompatible views of what love is all about. Carmen, the Gypsy, embodies the craving for total freedom. Don José, a soldier, represents a need for total possession of the person loved. The moment they cast eyes on one another they were on a collision course. For Carmen, love signifies an adventure or an exciting “fling.” Once it’s over, you simply move on to the next one. For Don José, an erotic monomaniac tormented nevertheless by a need for order, the beloved must accept being under her lover’s control. Needless to say, the violent clash between these diametrically opposite attitudes could only end in tragedy.
And thanks to the compelling music, the two protagonists become larger-than-life embodiments of sexual anarchy on the one hand and neurotic Puritanism on the other. A great play treating the subject might go into more subtle psychological details. But the composer’s marvelous score makes us feel the drama in our very flesh. I would strongly recommend the opera Carmen for anyone wanting to get acquainted with this art form. When performed by great singing actors, it will indeed touch off a physiological reaction in the spectator. Hopefully, he/she will be able to reach a washroom quickly before an intimate disaster occurs.