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A daytime soap set to glorious music: in praise of the ridiculous, sublime Carmen

Opera – especially an opera like Carmen – is the world turned upside down: being good makes you miserable and being in love is a sure portent of doom. And it’s fabulous, says Simon Wilson.

The best way to listen to opera is when you don’t know the language. I probably should confess I am not an expert, as may be clear from what follows, but anyway, that’s what I think. You just let the beauty wash through you like a karakia when you don’t have te reo, or a Gregorian chant when you’re not called Gregory. Tibetan throat singing when you’re not a yak. The alien is seductive, that’s the lesson here. The Catholic church knew it when they made everyone do their prayers in Latin and the synagogue and mosque know it today. Actually, clever pop singers know it too: nothing so catchy as a misheard lyric.

It’s not just that the romantic allure of operatic arias is enhanced when the lyrics are in Italian or some other obscure European language. Not knowing the words also helps because, sadly, when you do know them there’s a terrible risk the whole thing will turn to rubbish. It is a mystery beyond comprehension that the composers of all that sublime music have chosen – yes, actually it sought out and insisted on it – to dress their melodic genius in turgid, shallow and just plain dumb doggerel. The music is so beautiful, it melts you from the inside; but you glance up at the surtitles and it’s like Jono and Ben have got hold of the scroll and they’re fucking with you.

Don Jose (Tom Randle) and Carmen (Nino Surguladze) in NZ Opera’s Carmen. Photo: Marty Melville

I do love a good opera. Not for the libretto, obviously. And not, often, for the stagecraft either. Opera choruses are seldom convincing.

Is it for the story? A young man meets a poor young woman and falls in love with her, but she dies. Or, a disabled man is cruelly bullied and then tricked into killing his own daughter. Or, a princess is beset by suitors but her father keeps cutting off their heads, until one day a man turns up and triumphs through the purity of his love for this woman, although he does not know her, and his slave, who loves him, dies instead. Or, a soldier is seduced by a feisty gypsy so he abandons his true love and the army, but the gypsy is in love with a bullfighter so the soldier kills her.

The stories of opera get a bad rap. The suspension of disbelief is too big an ask; and there are just so many killings, suicides and madness, every one of them demanded by something called “honour”. It’s archaic but that barely prevents it from being obnoxious.

And yet, those stories. They’re daytime soaps set to glorious music, and the alchemy they perform is that the music turns them profound. The ridiculous becomes sublime. That’s quite an amazing trick, and it works because a great love story is just that, a great love story, and longing and loss are longing and loss, and no one does that stuff better than a lovelorn soprano, or tenor, or both together. Honestly, you can weep with the joy of hearing it.

Carmen (Nino Surguladze) and chorus members in NZ Opera’s Carmen. Photo: Marty Melville

Opera – most but not all opera – is the world turned upside down: being good makes you miserable and being in love is a sure portent of doom. It’s fabulous.

What you don’t want is a dutiful production, because when that happens the stupidities of the story blind you to the rest. What you do want is opera that shakes it all up, that finds some inventive sparkling way of convincing you it’s about you, and fills you to bursting with the music. If the story is preposterous, let it revel in that. If it contains the one true kernel – love is worth the loss, always – let it fling itself at you with that appalling, exhilarating, stupid truth. If it has something to say to the modern world, let it say it. If it has surtitles, which it will, you’ll glance at them more than you should, each time reminding yourself to just not do it. Tip: read the synopsis first. Then, you know, just open your heart.

Escamillo (James Clayton) and entourage in NZ Opera’s Carmen. Photo: Marty Melville

And so to Carmen, the NZ Opera production of which opens tonight. It’s the one with the gypsy, the dumbass soldier and the toreador, and it’s thrilling. True, some of the music is a little, well, this is the ta-ra-ra-boom-dee-yay opera so you’ve heard that bit even if you haven’t. But the rest of it is glorious, and if they’re any good they’ll make that bit glorious too. This is, by all accounts, a shake-it-all-up production, which is great. Fighting, sex, death, olé. It’ll be even better if you don’t know French. (Yes, I know, it’s a Spanish story but it’s in French. Just enjoy.)

Carmen: NZ Opera at the Aotea Centre, June 22-July 1.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz


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