OPERA IS BIG. Opera at the Metropolitan Opera (MET) in New York City is GRAND. As an audience member I walked along its red carpet and slid into its red velvety seats tonight. The seating had just the right spacing so that I didn’t have to peer over someone else’s head, rather I had the convenient opportunity to peer through the patrons in front of me instead. My night started with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting a live orchestra carting my suspension of disbelief into the world of George Bizet’s “Carmen” production by Sir Richard Eyre.
Why has it taken me so long to wander into the MET for an operatic experience? I pass it nearly every week to get to the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. My opera-singer roommate has only been singing its praises for the past year and enlightening me with scores morning, day and night… and yet I waited and watched straight plays, musicals and experimental theatre instead. I pleasantly found the elements of a great performance in “Carmen” with the addition of the performers’ extremely gifted vocal abilities impressively grounding and also lifting the performance!
Tonight’s production had Brandon Jovanovich passionately playing Don Jose, torn between his duty to his country as a soldier and his mother’s wishes for him to marry his sweet friend Micaela. A playful, fearless and fierce Carmen seducing Don Jose was brought to life by mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili. The lovely soprano Anna Hartig offered up a gracious take on Micaela and moved me to helpless utter tears within fifteen seconds of watching her softly fight for affection from Don Jose. All three performers held strong, appropriate relationships with each other that were truly humbling to the story.
Now I’m left asking myself what I should take from my experience with the opera as an actor? As an artist? I was struck by the thorough attention to detail that a MET production employs. Not only does sound travel in the space like its melting into you, but the costumes, the set, the delicate syndication of the large ensemble and chorus was impressive and invited me in. The soft melodic children chorus members balanced the bolder, more experienced singers in the production and created the sense of watching a community unfold on stage. There were no distractions to take my focus off of the play, which means that the coordination, collaboration, professional vocal, musical and behind-the-stage skills that were employed gave me the sense that years, and years of training (moula) and work goes into a MET production. I was in awe (first time at the MET obviously).
As an actor I connected and was mostly interested in the characters. The relation to another human being depicted on stage because of universals or truths that the performers discovered and shared with me. The story was controversial in its time due to the morality issues with a ‘gypsy’ woman, Carmen, seducing a French soldier, Don Jose, away from the more appropriate marriage to a sweet peasant girl, Micaela. Today this plot could still stir up some intense moral judgments/arguments given the opportunity although I’m sure it will never be as scandalous as it was when it opened in at the Opera Comique in Paris in 1875.
I tend to find the witnessing of moral dilemmas on stage as enlightening and it helps me to face fears and controversy in a safe space. I have opportunity to think about difficulties, about even painful ideas and events and have dialogue about them. In this particular story I was struck with comparing Micaela’s translation of Don Jose’s motherly love and approval (or lack thereof) as she followed him around to save his soul contrasted with Carmen’s freedom and ability to turn the audience on with a bold use of her body to seduce Don Jose. I was consistently torn between my heartfelt sympathy for Micaela and my excitement for Carmen’s freedom. I witnessed the performers shifting the focus on stage to where it needed to be at all times and it allowed me to take in the characters’ points of view quite clearly throughout the performance.
Happy to report that I am very inspired by the opera. I admire the passion that these performers had and it challenged and excited me to work harder on my own craft. It made me want to listen to Bizet more often too. It also made me think of a quote by the late Marian Seldes in her book The Bright Lights: A Theatre Life:
“The dream was the work.”
As an audience member it felt good to be the last ingredient for the MET’s creation of the dream of “Carmen” on stage tonight.