Surprising Carmen

The opera Carmen should not interest the decent spectators
who come to the Opera-Comique with their wives and daughters.
-- Early Critic of Bizet's Carmen

Peace and joy, Camper, and welcome once again to Your Uncle Jerry’s Opera Corner.

These days, more and more young people, when faced with the painful disappointments and desires of romance, are turning to the opera. There they find clearer and more believable answers than anything they’ve heard from their parents or their video games. Understandable. Your Uncle Jerry loves the opera, too, but one must keep a critical distance on these matters. A tenor in love is not necessarily your best role model. Especially in Carmen, the world’s most popular opera.

Let’s have a look at Don José. In case you missed this, Camper, José’s backstory includes killing a man who stole his woman. True, true, there is an upside to crimes of passion. Women love a man with passion, a man with a past. On the other hand, passion started José’s trouble before, and it will soon get him in trouble with Carmen—and I don’t mean the good kind. What José is missing is poetry.

I know, I know. Poetry alone is a check with insufficient funds; poetry without passion is a kiss without a moustache. But listen, passion alone is a roller-coaster of anguish at the Hotel California Amusement Park. Don’t take that ride, Camper. Why? Brush up on your 1970s pop music.

Look, pal. Within the heart of the woman you love, there is a Carmen; coquettish and demanding and jealous and, most of all, independent. There are two things that will totally drive her away. One is an obsession to control her. The other is letting her control you. Both of these are the natural offspring of passion, and José has both in spades.

A woman likes to be surprised by her man. Surprise is poetry to her, even when it comes from a doof like you. And no, by surprise, we are not talking about showing up with flowers in your red leather thong. Surprise means she can’t quite predict you; being unpredictable is a form of resistance. And there, my friend, is the irony of love in life and opera. Lovers find resistance fascinating. Why? Because love needs a little friction to keep it warm.

What makes Carmen go cold is a man who can’t stop adoring her for one minute, who gives up everything, jumps at her command. Loses himself. This creeps her out. Oh, she may string him along for awhile, but as he loses control, she loses respect for him. A more sensible Don José would marry the girl his mother picked out, and would then quietly take a series of wonderful lovers, perhaps including Carmen. (Oh please. It was the 19th century.) This is keeping poetry and passion in proper balance.

Dear old Don José, like so many tenors, is passionate but dim. When he shows up in the last act to win Carmen back, he pleads: “There is still time; we can make this work.” And does this work? “Dude, your threats are bad enough, but you’re so booooring. Kill me, please, so I hear no more of your endless raving about love.” Being dim, unfortunately, doesn’t mean being harmless. And—spoiler alert—he kills her.

The tenor may be a wonderful singer, but, No, the one you need to watch is the baritone—the toreador. To him, love is a gamble; he knows that going in. Flirtatious yet aloof, bold yet gallant. Full of passion but quick with a poem. Yes, the baritone loses the girl as often as not, but the point is that he never loses himself.

Joy and peace.