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Fall 2017

A Brilliant Director

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Wendy Lesser

composed by George Bizet,
adapted and directed by Louisa Proske.
Heartbeat Opera, New York,
May 21–28, 2017.

I would not normally seek out a small-scale production of Carmen performed in the tiniest and deepest of Baruch College’s basement auditoriums. It’s certainly not one of my favorite operas. Though I’ve rarely seen live versions of this eternally popular piece, the music nonetheless seems overly familiar, and the equally clichéd plot (exotic hotblooded Spanish gypsy dies for love) has always held less than zero appeal. But I knew something in advance about this particular production. I knew it was directed by Louisa Proske.

I first encountered Proske’s work last fall, when I happened to attend LoftOpera’s Così fan tutte at a warehouse in Bushwick. Così, like Carmen, is an opera I’ve grown wary of, though for entirely different reasons. The music is superb, possibly even better than in any of Mozart’s other operas, but that only makes the cruelty of the plot more noticeable, and more despicable. The central device involves the purposeful rematch of two pairs of lovers, with the male suitors, Ferrando and Guglielmo, manipulated and controlled by a malicious figure named Don Alfonso, while the female halves of each couple, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are egged on by their maid Despina. In the end, the opera proves to its own satisfaction that women “all do that,” as the title would have it—that every faithless jade will sooner or later accept a new lover in the temporary absence of her old one. Yet faced with this seemingly intractable material, Louisa Proske transformed it into something both compelling and lifelike, drawing incredible performances out of her six talented actor-singers. For the first time in my life, I found the opera funny (especially in the first half) and moving (especially in the second).

Proske’s brilliant move was to present the four lovers as teenagers, with Don Alfonso as the boys’ teacher and Despina as the girls’ put-upon cleaning lady. Simply by reducing their ages and putting them in classroom desks, this approach made sense of Ferrando’s and Guglielmo’s idiotic willingness to take Don Alfonso’s bet about unfaithful girlfriends. It also made all the stupidity about love—the blind conviction about its permanence, the terror of infidelity, the mooning about at temporary abandonment, the anger connected with jealousy—seem to apply to these particular teenagers, rather than to men and women in general. And in taking a rather contemptuous attitude toward these young fools, we in the audience found ourselves in very much the position of the evil, string-pulling Don Alfonso: a realization which caused me, at least, to rethink my position and sympathize more with the young lovers.

Risks were taken here. Don Alfonso was presented (though with great subtlety) as an envious old homosexual, half in love with his boys and half resentful of their active sex lives with their girlfriends. Despina was markedly working-class—overweight, badly dressed, routinely angry, and not at all the sprightly, sexy little maid played more typically by the likes of Danielle de Niese. Both of these factors gave motivation to the vengeful plot inflicted on the young lovers by these two. And though the story needn’t be realistic to succeed (can’t, in fact, be realistic, given the problems of recognition and non-recognition that so often afflict opera plots), the removal of the standard coldly motiveless malignity made it much easier to stomach the cruel proceedings. There was also great humor in the portrayal of the two secretly returning young men, who were not the usual Turks or Albanians so much as grownups in suits, with huge fake mustaches: they had been turned from boys into men and were successfully hiding behind their new roles. And the routine hurrying-up toward the end of the plot, when the impostors disappear during the wedding scene and are almost immediately replaced by the grooms in their original personae, worked in a way it never had before, because these were confused teenagers who just wanted to avoid embarrassment and forget their terrible pain. That the pain became general at that moment—a function of love, beyond teenage angst, beyond opera gimmicks—was part of the great beauty and delicacy of the show.

Louisa Proske, it turned out, was merely on loan to LoftOpera, but she is permanently attached to Heartbeat Opera, a company she founded a couple of years ago with her fellow director Ethan Heard. That New York abounds in little opera companies is testimony to the aspiring-singer pool that happens to dwell in that city: the productions may vary enormously in quality, but the level of vocal talent is often remarkably high. What Proske is looking for, however, is not just good singing. She also needs people who can act, because her productions are full-fledged dramas, affecting their audiences as complicated, well-thought-through, emotion-packed narratives as well as occasions for expressive song.

Her Carmen takes place on a curtainless stage, with a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that stretches from left to right and cuts the stage area in half. Toward the right side, interrupting the fence, is a little hut of the sort occupied by sentries. On the left is a small orchestra, half of which (piano, violin, viola, guitar) sits in front of the fence, on our side, and half of which (saxophones, percussion, bass) sits behind it. This division between the classical and jazzy instruments—which will merge in the course of the opera, forming the front-and-center dance band that plays for the marvelously joyful “party” scene, and will then retreat to their original spots at the end—is subtly indicative of the opera’s whole approach to its source material, which is at once rebellious and respectful, serious and fun.

The first dialogue we hear is spoken, not sung, and it’s in English. Inside the little sentry hut, two men—evidently guards of some kind—are passing the time by talking about the sporting event that is taking place on their tiny TV. While they are engaged in this trivial and not fully audible chatter, a woman clothed in hipster-slattern modern dress emerges from the shadowy background and athletically hoists herself up onto the hut’s roof. She moves silently so as not to disturb the guards; she is evidently aiming to get down in front, on our side of the fence, without attracting their attention. She has almost escaped when her cellphone goes off, trumpeting the theme song of Carmen. She wrestles with her bag to silence the phone, but it is too late: the guards have heard and seen her, and now they haul her, legs first, through the hut’s front window and then cuff her hands behind her back.

What she was doing behind the fence, and why she wants to escape from there, is never explained, but we don’t need to know that. It is sufficient for us to realize that this magnificently charismatic creature (played by an astounding Sishel Claverie) is our Carmen, a woman who is willing to risk a great deal, including capture and possibly even death, to get what she wants. A lesser director might have over-stressed and over-explicated the border-control aspect of the set, allowing it to wallow in its current topicality. Proske wisely lets it speak for itself, so that the subject of boundaries established and boundaries violated—a subject touching on the borders between languages, between cultures, between brow-levels of music, between past and present—hovers constantly over the whole production.

The little orchestra has by now embarked on the Carmen overture, even as the two guards and Carmen continue to use spoken English. When one man leaves, she pleads with the other, becoming more enticing and seductive in her charmingly French-accented English, and at this point we understand that this guard is actually Don José, her central counterpart in the plot. Soon she begins to sing to him in French (with the English translation appearing in supertitles on a screen over the piano); he in turn answers her back, first in spoken English, then in sung French, and the transition is so seamless that we barely realize we have passed from play to opera. It is like that magical moment in Vanya on 42nd Street when the actors, sitting around a rehearsal table sipping coffee from takeaway cups, cease to chat amongst themselves and begin to deliver Chekhov’s lines.

The tenor Brent Reilly Turner, who plays Don José, is not fully Claverie’s equal, but then no one is: she stands apart from all of them, as a performer and as a character. Whether this was done through casting, through rehearsing, through directorial instruction or actor inspiration, or some combination of all of the above, is not something we can ever hope to know. It is enough that we will be in the presence of this Carmen for an evening of always gripping performance, and that the men and women around her will support her (which often, in plot terms, means obstructing her) as needed. Everyone has his or her part to play: the ingenue Micaëla, sung by the soprano Jessica Sandidge as if she considered herself, and not Carmen, to be the operatic star of the show; the flamboyant Escamillo, performed in rooster-strutting mode by the bass-baritone Ricardo Rivera, who tosses off his “Toreador” song as if it were a frivolous aside, the way the best Hamlet actors manage to deliver their overly familiar “To be or not to be”; even the musicians, who clamber all over the stage and interact with Carmen in a way that makes the central party scene seem like a real party onstage.

There is not a single moment of downtime in the whole production. Everyone is always doing something, and even the transitions between acts are filled with newly devised entr’acte music. The few pauses in the action that occur early on, when the audience insists on applauding an aria, are soon drowned out by the urgencies of plot. There is a sudden gunshot after the first major duet between Carmen and Don José, for instance, that shocks the about-to-applaud audience members into silence and pretty much shuts us up from then on. In this way we are held captive for an intermissionless ninety minutes. Nothing essential has been cut out, but the libretto has been boiled down to its essence. So has the staging, which alters mainly as the characters themselves carry things on and off, always using that central fence-and-hut structure as the baseline around which to group boxes, suitcases, tables and chairs, festive lights, and everything else they might need to make us believe in the events taking place before our eyes.

That we believe so fervently in this production’s Carmen and Don José is partly a function of the way their characters are set against their foils, Micaëla and Escamillo, the “alternate” love interests of the two leads. Because the pretty blond Micaëla is so conventionally operatic in her delivery, the feisty Carmen seems even more straightforward and realistic than she might otherwise. And because Escamillo is so outrageously theatrical and self-glorifying (“Can you play my song?” he challenges the dance band, flourishing a Wanted poster displaying his face and the nickname “Toreador”), the slightly schlumpy Don José comes off as an honest and truly nice guy by comparison. Even the voices cement the fact that it is Carmen and Don José who belong together, for her low mezzo-soprano and his high tenor meld together at the midpoint, halfway between Micaëla’s soaring soprano and Escamillo’s deep bass. What is already there in Bizet’s music, in other words, has been excavated and made sense of in Proske’s staging.

She takes one great liberty with the order of events, and it is a courageous and beautiful one. At the very end, as the plot demands, Don José kills Carmen in a fit of jealous rage. We see him stab her repeatedly and violently, though since his body is hiding hers from us, we don’t actually see the knife go in. Then the orchestra falls silent and the stage goes completely dark. When the lights come up a moment later, Carmen is standing alone onstage, facing us, her white T-shirt blood-spattered, her arms at her sides, her expression at once sad, fierce, and deadened. The audience, grasping its opportunity at long last, bursts into loud and prolonged applause—for this singer in particular, but also for the whole production, whose other performers are now expected to appear so that they too can take their bows.

But something feels slightly off. Carmen doesn’t smile, doesn’t acknowledge our applause, doesn’t waver in the intensity of her stare, and gradually we realize that even now we are not meant to applaud. The clapping dies down and there is silence—a very long silence in theatrical terms, perhaps fifteen or twenty full seconds. And then, to the quietly resumed music of the orchestra, Carmen sings her famous habanera about rebellious love.

Her voice is coming to us from beyond the grave, but it is also coming to us live, from a character whose vital force is so powerful that she goes on living, and will go on living, for centuries after her many repeated deaths. It is the kind of moment that can probably only take place in a theater this size, where a special variety of theatrical magic can make itself felt. What we are experiencing, in such moments, is the hair-raising thrill of something coming into being where nothing is or was before.

This magic is something that we in the audience and the players onstage spontaneously produce together, and it is as fleeting as it is rare. I can practically count the times I have experienced it in my life: at a Berliner Ensemble performance of The Merchant of Venice in Edinburgh; at my first viewing of Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls in London’s Lyttelton Theatre; at the original Eureka Theater version of Angels in America in San Francisco; and maybe in two or three other instances. Perhaps because operas are usually such large-scale, exaggeratedly performative events, I have never felt it at an opera to quite the same extent. Or rather, I hadn’t until I saw Louisa Proske’s Carmen.

Wendy Lesser is the founding and current editor of The Threepenny Review. Her latest book is You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn.

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