Bizet’s Carmen, the Spanish “belle dame sans merci”

 

One of the most thrilling facts to me today that makes me hopeful about the future of humanity is that so many of the products of high culture, which used to be only available to a small, moneyed elite is now truly democratically available to everyone with a curiosity.

I’d wager that 90% of the Western literary canon is available for download for free in PDF form; there are great numbers of whole operas, produced by major houses, available with subtitles in a number of languages on Youtube. What a boon! (See my list.)What tremendous wealth of beauty and brilliance we all have access to. One could spend a whole life enriching one’s life with the highest and noblest of humanity’s artistic accomplishments at absolutely no cost.

One of my favorite past times is to watch video productions of whole operas; I don’t have to pay for expensive good seats in the theatre, and frankly, I love being at home! I used to have to buy rather pricy DVDs, and while I miss the crisp HD images, I will live with the no-cost variety offered by Youtube.

I just watched Carmen. Almost everyone will recognize many of the delightfully familiar melodies; the triumphant overture repeating throughout the opera, and the very famous Habanera, a musical encapsulation of the title character’s slippery, dark sexual allure.

 

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The dreamy, young(ish) Placido Domingo and the peerlessly glamorous Teresa Berganza.

 

As with most operas, the storyline is not terribly complicated. Boy meets (very sexy, slippery) girl. Boy falls for girl. Girl leaves him for another. Boy gets mad, kills her. Oops.

We see the crimson skirt-twirling Carmen whose flamenco manton shawl slides on and off her shoulder, feet tapping in spell-binding rhythm. Bizet’s brilliant and lush Spanish melodies, with the moorish flute climbing up and down in tantalizing double harmonic major scale (i.e. the “Gypsy scale“), tambourines shaking, castanets-clapping, take us right to the fiery soul of Andalusia.

 

 

 

(By the way, being transfixed by the beauty of Carmen’s dress, the matador’s charisma, and the spectacle of Andalusian visual poetry made me rage once again about these ‘modernist’ productions that put operatic characters in Ann Taylor suits on Spartan stages. Right, because that’s what theatre-goers pay lots of money to see! Barf on a stick.)

We learn pretty much right away that Carmen, our protagonist, operates in taunting defiance of Christian moral code. She works a crowd of rowdy, adoring soldiers confidently, without shame, knowing that they are her mercy.

When she is accused of attacking another woman with a knife (a serious accusation), the entire town caught in a gossipy commotion, instead of reacting with righteous indignation or trying to clear her name, she sings teasingly, “Tra la la… Coupe-moi, brûle-moi.” (“Tra la la…. cut me, burn me!”)

Sentenced to imprisonment, she manipulates a soldier, Don Jose, into letting her free, as a result of which she successfully escapes and he is punished with months of imprisonment himself.

(When she learns of this, her response is not to feel guilty or sorry, but essentially “LOL Sorry not sorry.”)

He comes and finds her eventually; they shack up until, well, she’s bored of him. And who can blame her? From the beginning, to the end, he lets himself be manipulated by Carmen. WEAK!

Carmen is a cautionary tale of dark feminine magic that lead men to ruin, the power of unfettered feminine freedom and agency. Her sexual power reigns over all that come into contact with her; she is la belle dame sans merci! There is an unforgettable flamenco dance sequence where all of her intoxicating beauty is on display.

The women in Carmen’s gypsy coterie, in their itinerant travels, shuffle and cut cards, singing “who will love us, who will betray us?” They are deft hands at the art of clairvoyance. The forces of their dark magic rule the narrative; Carmen draws her own cards, sees death, and only death, confirmed over and over by repeated drawings. (One can only imagine how transgressive to 19th century Catholic sensibilities these must have been!)

Bizet loved his heroine, I think. She is the jewel of the play, irresistible, mysterious and swaggeringly in command of every stage she occupies. Carmen’s fate is tied to (more than one) man, but it is forever they are at mercy of her approving glance.

*Edited to add: A friend of mine tells me that the conductor of the SF Opera orchestra praised Carmen “as the greatest and most unlikely feminist works of classical music”. And I cannot agree more!

 

French opera singer Célestine Galli-Marié (1840-1905) in a 1875
French opera singer Célestine Galli-Marié (1840-1905) in a 1875 production.

 

There is the pious, virginal, innocent and loyal woman that is such a favorite operatic archetype in the 19th century: Tosca, Madama Butterfly, etc. (This type usually dies at the end. Oops.) In this opera, we have Micaëla, innocent as a rose, mother-approved, pure of heart, we quickly come to see is Carmen’s foil (then we forget about her, because — snooze.) Micaëla’s claim to Don Jose is that his mother longs for their union; she shamelessly invokes the mother’s sickness and dying like bait to attract back the object of her affection. We all know that his heart is still, perversely, with the cruel Carmen who is not dependent on him.

 

Norah Amsellem as Micaela in the Seattle Opera production.
Norah Amsellem as Micaela in the Seattle Opera production.

 

With absolute freedom — including freedom from Christian-bourgeois morality — comes the risk of death. Carmen’s freedom killed her!

Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!

Free she is born, and free she will die!

But Don Jose, her scorned lover, was not free, as he was in a pathetic spell. I think I, too, would rather die of freedom than of possessive love, and Carmen is the anti-saint embodying this particular dark ideal!

 


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Tricolor Mary: Encountering 3 Faces of the Divine Feminine

Mary in White

I always felt curiously distant from the figure of Mary. I always sensed that there is so much there and yet, I could never connect to it emotionally.

The foil to Eve, vessel of Love, suffering mother. I wanted to love her, I wanted to feel her, I wanted to feel drawn to the mystery of Marian devotion. But I felt alienated by the vision of the feminine that she seemed to project: the pure, immaculate, virginal, submissive, obedient, quietly suffering.

Most days, I feel like the opposite of every single one of those qualities. 

It's exactly the kind of feminine archetype I don't really relate to -- the kind of person about whom people say, "oh, she's really nice" as if yielding compliance and non-offensiveness are her primary attributes. The kind of woman who fades into the background, whose worth lies only in her utility to the patriarchal narrative.

Will Mary, with the white halo on her head, be accepting of my chaos, my non-virginity, my rejection of Victorian purity, my failure to suffer quietly (I like to kick and scream)? Am I not more a daughter of Eve, the one who says "yes" to darkness and temptation? 

If so, how can I make peace with Mary, let alone love her? How can I fully reconcile with an otherwise masculine-dominated vision of Christianity?

Earlier, I was reading a Camille Paglia interview, in which she contrasted the pagan floridness of Mediterranean Catholicism with the country club-politeness and blandness of what is seen in a lot of churches nowadays. Then it clicked with me.

Through most of the images I'd seen in my life, I only encountered "country club" versions of Mary -- squeaky-clean, wholesome, Doris Day. Nothing dark or mysterious or dangerous about her. No edge, no drama, no intrigue.

We form relationships with symbols, realms of the subconscious and the spiritual, through images. I have been sorely deprived of interesting images of Mary

Then I set out to explore, looking at very different visual representations of Mary. Indeed, artists and poets throughout the ages have imagined her in strikingly diverse ways. Through these images, we can reconsider our own ideas of womanhood, weaving together different threads of Jungian symbols. 

This is why we have art, yes? So that we can re-order what we know and how we know it through active seeing. (And I'd be remiss not to mention, if you're interested in active seeing, check out the book I recently reviewed for the National Book Review.)

Now, let's get to it.

1. Mary in White

Mary in White

This is very near the only image of Mary I grew up with. I had a small statuette of her in my room growing up, and saw aesthetically similar statues in the churches I grew up in in Korea and suburban California. 

Mary has pale skin, blandly pretty features, clad in flowy, fluid lines of white and sky blue. For our purposes, let's call her the White Mary.

I'll come out and say it, because I think this is what Paglia was alluding to: she's the Episcopalian country club Mary and does absolutely nothing for me. Very serviceable, polite, nice. She is kind and inviting without edges. Beautiful without any hint of threatening sexuality. She is stripped of any hint of Mediterranean pageantry; she's been "protestant-ized". 

Oh, of course, there's the serpent she is crushing under her foot. The serpent that lured Eve, the precursor to Original Sin. The snake under the foot always grossed me out when I was a child, but only slightly, because it's so easy to miss! You can barely see it. In these statuettes, the snakes are thin, anemic, rarely truly menacing. They're the most toothless representations of the Evil that she is symbolically crushing. 

She can overcome only an already weak and limp enemy. This is barely the tough, scrappy young woman who got off a donkey in a faraway land and gave birth in a dirty manger. This is not the mater dolorosa who stood by her bleeding, slowly dying son. 

If this country club Mary saw anything like that, she might politely turn away, ask for her smelling salts, and mutter something like, "oh, goodness, how unseemly!" 

 

 

2. Chapel of Grace, Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey 

Chapel of Grace, Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey

Now we're talking. Behold Schwartzmuttergottes (Black Mother of God).

She is the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, said to be 500-600 years old, and she lives in Switzerland. 

This is not the same Mary as above. Carved of wood and painted a gleaming black, she is resplendently clad in stiff, imposing regal attire. There is none of the gentle, pastel-colored fluidity of Country Club Mary's dress. She wields a majestic scepter, and golden rods of light and unfurling waves of cloud shoot out and explode from behind her. The curves and lines here look Greco-Roman to me, and carry the exuberant energy of that ancient, pagan era.

Her facial features are slightly harder to discern, but we can see enough to say that she isn't exactly in a "my dear, why don't you come over for a nice cup of tea and crumpets?" kind of a mood. She is queenly, slightly forboding, the smooth darkness of her face hard and pearl-like. Her blackness harkens to a kind of pre-cosmic source-energy.

Gazing upon the Black Madonna, we think of the other Indo-European mirror, the Hindu goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil forces, whose name is synonymous with the color black. 

 

3. Viridissima Virga (A Green Mary)

Viridissima Virga

We have here not a picture, but a poem, which was written for a chant.

O Viridissima Virga (O Greenest Rod)

O branch of freshest green,
O hail! Within the windy gusts of saints
upon a quest you swayed and sprouted forth.

When it was time, you blossomed in your boughs—
“Hail, hail!” you heard, for in you seeped the sunlight’s warmth
like balsam’s sweet perfume.

For in you bloomed
so beautiful a flow’r, whose fragrance wakened
all the spices from their dried-out stupor.

They all appeared in full viridity.

Then rained the heavens dew upon the grass
and all the earth was cheered,
for from her womb she brought forth fruit
and for the birds up in the sky
have nests in her.

Then was prepared that food for humankind,
the greatest joy of feasts!
O Virgin sweet, in you can ne’er fail any joy.

All this Eve chose to scorn.

But now, let praise ring forth unto the Highest!

(Latin original)

Viridissima Virga

Look here, where it gets really interesting. In this song, composed by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), witchy polymath and Doctor of the Church, Mary is not white, not black, but freaking green. Okay?

Hildegard was an accomplished botanist and natural historian. She didn't quite get the ascetic early Christian memo about turning one's eye away from the physical world in pursuit of the heavenly kingdom. No, she has her sights fixed on the sensorily-rich fertility principle, imagining Mary as a kind of Aphrodite. 

I love this fulsome, pagan bounty of nature in this poem. Mary "seeped the sunlight's warmth / like balsam's sweet perfume." A flower bloomed in her, waking the "spices" that appear in "full viridity". Worship of Mary is a celebration, a softening into the cycle of nature, a vibrant catalogue of color and movement.

By the way (this is the kind of stuff that makes me explode with nerdy delight), I love the punny potential of the title, 'viridissima virga'.

'Virga' means 'stem', or 'rod' (teeheehee, 'rod' -- I am so twelve years old forever), but of course it is a single letter away from 'virgo', meaning 'virgin'. (Ohhhhhh!) 'Viridissima' is a fancy Latin word for 'very green', but change one letter again and we have 'virilissima', which means, well, 'very virile'.

So much that is suggestive and sexy in this poem: branch that "swayed and sprouted forth"; heavens raining "dew upon the grass," and "from her womb she brought forth fruit." 

Nope, there is none of the solemn meekness of a scriptural Mary. Instead, the Mother of God is the luxuriant queen of generativity, the creative center of a blooming, exultant earthly garden. (Aha, garden! Like the one once inhabited by Eve. So we circle back to Genesis.) 

 

 

 

How to listen to slowness: Handel Minuet in G Minor

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
(from John Keats’ “To Autumn”)

I’ve been spoiled by some amazing foliage in my lifetime, having spent so many years in and around New England. I spent fall of last year in Bavaria, which boasts its own fairytale charm in October, November.  But really, Korean falls are second to none. Right about now, every road is lined with immoderate bursts of gold, auburn, canary, crimson. God dipped his paintbrush and is drenching his canvas of hills and ridges in color. I can’t help but imagine that even the most unsentimental mind might start to give into the insistence of nature’s poetry.

I was driving to work this morning, luxuriating in the carpets of red and yellow unfolding across my path. Roads relatively clear and serene, since it’s a Sunday. And this came on the radio, Handel’s Minuet in G Minor. It was one of those almost comically perfect scenery-music pairings.

 

 

How to listen

Listen, and trace the unfolding of the main melody, which repeats four times, each a gentle re-consideration of the original thematic idea, slowly building in tension and complexity. Notice the subtly different mood of each rendering.

Then about halfway through, listen for a change, the “response,” the “bridge,” so to speak.

I always imagine that a piece of music contains a conversation — two parties in this case, but in more complex polyphonic pieces, more than that.

Listen for how the two melodic lines (left hand and right hand, if you play the piano) flow alongside, crossing, rubbing against one another. Notice the two trills, happening in succession; one a statement, the other, a whisper.

A hushed chromatic (that is, notes climbing up or down one by one, step by step, as in a staircase) sequence follow. There is some sadness, a questioning, a hesitation, a lifting, a resolution — a sighing folding.

Then the original idea, the main melody, repeats, but it feels different from the first time. It talks back, bringing the conversation to a close, leaving a space that is so much bigger than what the piece opened with.

 

As I drove, allowing the music to re-organize the air around me, it started to feel like a seduction to the idea of slowness. This minuet is a very slow march. It occurs to me now that it might also be a very slow dance, which a minuet is supposed to be.

There is so hurry — the deliberately languid, soporific pace is a gift. You can bend time, stretch it out, let looseness flow, and in the process, alter your experience of the same feeling and understanding.

Slowness creates space that one passes by in a hurry. We escape the go-go-go frenzy of a chattering brain momentarily so that we can come back to waking consciousness with a greater measure of presence.

More, better, faster is not always a virtue. A verbal argument is not necessary when we have a musical idea such as this; a musical idea can only ever be an invitation, a seduction, which is better.

 

Lastly, I leave you with this quote from Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness, a book I read with great relish many years ago.

“In existential mathematics that experience takes the form of two basic equations: The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”

 


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Gregorian chants: an entry point into eternity

I have had friends, who are not religious and do not ever intend to become religious, who say that entering a church always does something to them. That, despite their indifference or even antipathy toward organized traditional religion, they find something beautiful and soothing about the ceremony, quiet and solemnity of church.

When I had completely ‘divorced’ the idea of God and religion, it was the same thing that always made me feel rueful. Like being reminded of the enduring, irrefutable beauty of a former lover who had proved untrue and left me scorned. And such beauty it truly is, in all senses — the slow-moving incense, a ringing depth of bells, the glisten of a chalice against candlelight, the spell of centuries-old harmony, alternatingly sweet, soaring, sorrowful.

We respond to that because what we feel with our bodies and senses is an invitation, not an argument.

If we are all floating about, feeling fragmented, alone and afraid — and I suspect we mostly are, as I always feel I am — the balm may be something that can make us feel grounded, anchored, oriented. The awareness of that is pre-cognitive and post-verbal.

If you have even a single mystical bone in your body, the invitation is always there — not to a set of beliefs, not to an institution, but to an expanded awareness, the subtle registering of something of rare solidity and transcendent orderliness, something that sucks you out of the prison of solipcism and out into an infinitely vast space, into a sense of time without beginning or end.

You may have felt something like that during yoga, meditation, absorption in great art or nature. Entry points are many, because the Eternal hides them everywhere.

Gregorian chants are one of my favorite such entry points, and Veni Creator Spiritus is one of my favorite gregorian chants. If you are allergic to the idea of anything religion-related, you might instead connect to the pure and searching hearts of of all the women and men across generations who sang the same hymn.

 

In English:

Come Creator Spirit, visit the souls of Thy people,
Fill with grace from on high the hearts which Thou hast created.

Thou Who art called the Comforter, gift of the most high God,
Living fountain, fire, love and unction of souls.

Sevenfold in Thy gifts, finger of the Father’s right hand,
Thou promised truly by the Father, giving speech to tongues.

Inflame our senses with Thy light, pour Thy love into our hearts,
Strengthen our weak bodies with lasting power.

Drive far away the enemy, grant peace at all times:
So under Thy guidance may we avoid all evil.

Grant us by Thee to know the Father and to know the Son,
And Thee, Spirit of both, may we always believe.

To God the Father be glory, to the Son Who rose from the dead
And to the Comforter, for all ages. Amen.

 

 


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Why paying for art is an investment in yourself

My friend Paula Schramm is a full-time human, an celebratory label I attach to those who are more awake to life than the average bear. I have learned many things from her: how to be a pilgrim, how to pink your hair, how to be vulnerable and powerful at once. (Yes, Paula, I like to alliterate.) One of the most life-altering things I learned from her is the value of paying for things you like.

When I find an artist I like, I mostly admire their work online. I follow them on Facebook or Pinterest or whatever. Paula actually buys a giant painting from them and hangs it on her wall. If we both follow a spiritual teacher, I read their work and tweet about it. Paula buys their merchandise and puts it on her table, next to her well-loved pens and notebooks. They sit in her flat, radiating energy and blessing the air.

It’s not that Paula has all this cash to burn and I don’t. Paula likes to pay to have things she values take up physical space in her life. To her, voting with your dollar (or, strictly speaking in this case, her euro) goes beyond politics; it goes to the realm of art and ideas. With her money, she votes for beauty and presence and wakefulness.

What I have come to understand is that, supporting an artist I love, paying for something that nourishes you, changes you. It really does so much more for you than whoever that money went to.

An artist serves as the vessel of their art-ideal, and when you support the artist, you join them in service. You feel that you have invested in the thing that they stand for; what you get back in return almost feels like a transference of the qualities you admire back to yourself. By paying materially for art, you officially and irrefutably ally yourself yourself with the cause of your artist, whether it is beauty, wonder, healing, provocation, humor, clairvoyance or sublimation. The cause also becomes yours.

 


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