Thursday, February 12, 2015

Take Me Away, Carmen...

This week we are immersed in opera. Not just any opera, but Bizet's Carmen with the Knoxville Opera Company. Sure, we've all heard the tunes, but there's a whole lot more to it than just excerpted snippets. Playing the entire opera is an odyssey, and what you don't hear on commercials is even better than what you do hear.

I'm way out of college now, but I still can recall a certain grad school class at Umass where I was in way over my head: an opera survey class whose main textbook was written by music critic Joseph Kerman, entitled Opera as Drama. The premise of the book is that an opera's measure of success lay in how well the music is integrated with and contributes to the drama. Wanting a challenging elective, I signed up for the course, thinking “hey great, I'll learn a lot about opera!” I had no idea what kind of obstacle I had thrown in the path of receiving my Master's degree. In addition to the Kerman, there were cartloads of books in various languages and a listening list that was easily as long (remember, opera is a “real-time” art) as the entire spring semester of 1986. I just wanted to get out of there. I took FIVE auditions that spring! It was tooth-and-nail when grades came out, but I passed somehow.

It is nice- and easy- to see Kerman's premise in effect. Bizet's careful crafting of the melody to the characters' destinies has just as much to do with the work's success as does the sheer beauty of the melodies themselves. While it is thrilling to hear high c's and such in Italian (and other) opera, Carmen captures your heart largely without vocal pyrotechnics. A lot of Puccini, and the whole verismo movement seems to be derived from this work: textures, pacing and harmony. It's one of my favorite operas to play, and a work of art about which can truly be said, “there's a lot in it.” All this, wrapped up in “the French style,” can be YOURS this Friday (tomorrow) at 8:00 and Sunday matinee at 2:30 at the Tennessee Theatre. 

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