On September 29 and 30, the Opera of the Slovak National Theatre presents the premiere of the new Carmen production with the stage direction by Lubor Cukr, the current director of the SNT Opera. The piece will be performed under the baton of the new chief conductor Kevin Rhodes, for whom this is the first musical staging of an opera work at the Slovak National Theatre. On this occasion, he gave an interview to Opera Slovakia in which he explained what he emphasizes in his musical concept, how he perceives the operatic story in relation to the Prosper Mérimée’s original novel, how Bizet managed the combining of the Spanish colour with the French “style galant” and in what lies the musical perfection of this piece.
Carmen is one of the most popular operas in the world, when did you encountered it for the first time?
In fact, in very early childhood in America because I grew up with cartoons, which were made in forties and fifties, and the Carmen music often appears all over that staff. They cannot be remember not knowing some of these melodies.
Is this your first production of Carmen?
Yes, and for me it is very exciting because Carmen is also the very first opera recording, I have ever bought – as a kid – and I immediately fell in love with this piece. As I lived in a small place with no live opera, the recordings were the only path how to meet it. This was really awkward, but anyway, it led me to wanting to conduct. So, maybe now I am finally coming back to where it all began for me.
Carmen was composed for the Opéra Comique in Paris, but the story is tragical…
Yes, but the “comique” did not mean what we understand is comedy. As I have come to understand it, this was nearly the place where speech dialogues are between musical numbers, similar to operetta.
Like the first version of Carmen which was later supplemented with recitatives by Ernest Giraud.
Yes, but we are not doing the version with Giraud’s recitatives which became standard after Bizet’s death, and we are also not doing the version with dialogues either.
So, can you give us a closer look at what Carmen will sound like?
The idea began when we first chatted about with Lubor Cukr, the stage director of this production. He invited me to conduct Carmen saying “So, tell me what your ideas are” and I said, “My first question is are we looking for Opéra Comique or recitative version?” And he answered, “Definitely not recitative”. I replied, “That’s great because I do not like this recitative version.”
Because I feel it turns this piece into a rather different work. These recitatives seem to me that if they weren’t in French, they could be easily put it in the middle of The Bartered Bride, and everybody would believe that they are a part of this piece. You know, The Bartered Bride has probably the longest accompanied recitatives compared to any other opera – in sum about 45 minutes. I just wanted to say that when I listen to Carmen with these recitatives, I immediately feel that I do not listen to Bizet, and this is for me disturbing.
As we continued to discuss more he went into depth with his concept, and I really found it exciting and interesting. I don’t want to speak for Lubor, he should do it himself, but he was mentioning some cinema influences. Some of these films I knew, some I didn´t, but the ones I knew seemed great to me and for the others I made some research and was also completely excited. Therefore, I think, this is really going to be a very unique, popular, interesting and artistically beautiful production.
But wouldn’t the lack of these dialogues detract something important from the story?
If we would do all these texts, it would be really long evening of maybe four and half hours. I think, the Bizet’s music even without them thoroughly tells the story. Completely because the words are in this music.
And besides that, I think, this would be a very popular piece with the public, also from that standpoint there are neither recitatives nor dialogs. We are estimating that it should take about two and half hours including only one intermission between second and third acts. This is just the estimation, the real time may little differ but, I think, this makes it a perfect thing for people who have never visited opera to come and try out. Because it is rather thin when you say to somebody who has never been there “Hey, come to the opera house, the piece is only three and half hours…” This is too long time for people who are not used to, and now the world does not operate in time spans like this anymore.
What is your conception of the musical staging of the opera Carmen?
One of the things that we are working on very much relates to the basic music elements we have discussed in the previous interview (HERE…). One of my most important efforts is trying to get much greater extremes of the dynamics. This includes encouraging our artists to realize that they really can sing also piano and do not need to give so much all the night. Lubor is staging in a way that I think, the scene is really great for the acoustics. The set has lot of walls projecting the sound out and with my colleagues in the orchestra we are working much to bring down the volume at the places where it should really be and really to scream when it must be.
Earlier I also spoke about the rhythm as a basic music element. When I was a student, one of the things I read about many times was the so-called French style and its expression going back to the baroque era. And since I was learning about it, I thought that I know, of course, but I really experienced it just in France during all those years working in Paris. And this French style has a lot to do with rhythm. Every musician particularly knows what does it mean dotted rhythm but how it should be “plus exagérer”, that is more exaggerated in the French style? Taking into context, on a German recording of Händel or Haydn from the fifties or the sixties, you hear the sound like “PAAAAM PAM PAAAAM PAM!” but on a French one “raaam, papaaam, pa” this is “style galant”. I really feel this is absolutely written on the page of the score, in the notes we are looking at and for the years working in Paris I think I got it.
But you know, when I wanted to apply it here, I just said “Oh, can we exaggerate the dot?” “Ok, yes, fine.” but it happened “pas de probléme”, everyone started “Tam, TaDamm…, TaDamm…, TaDaaa…” too extremely. So, I am really trying to work up this with the chorus, the soloists, and with the orchestra I really will try getting this kind of clarity and spring in the rhythm because, I think it is so important.
And we even had also a little moment in the card game tercet from Carmen when I was working with Frasquita and Mercedes. I just wanted they say exactly the words “Bien, c’est cela!” right in the beginning after “Mêlons”, “Coupons”, and of course, wonderful colleagues just joining on for the first time sang it “BIEEEN-C’EEEST-CELAAA!” So, we tried again to make it really “Bieeen, c’eeest celaaa…!” If the idea of this sort of rhythmic energy can continue from the front to the back, this will really be interesting and nice like the right “sec” wine or champagne. And this is the right expression, “molto secco”.
But on the other hand, when it is needed a big “fat” German legato, that kind of long “Grösse” like in the central melody from Tannhäuser overture, it’s something else what to prefer in the working up…
So, we are really working on this, everyone is very capable, and it’s up to me to make it happens. For me as an American coming from the tiny place in the middle of nowhere in Indiana it is really great, that I have a luck to experience so many different cultures and countries, all of these places where so much music we play comes from. There is no reason I should have had this opportunity in my life. Therefore, I am just lucky and very happy.
Which characteristic features does the French orchestra have? For instance, I have read that when Hector Berlioz visited German countries, he had real problems to find a good harp player…
That makes sense. Certainly, the role of the harp in this piece is very important. And in some performances, a lot of times the orchestra is maybe kind of playing a little on a heavy side so that you are not aware of the harp playing there just when the singer sings some magical word. But I hope we can balance this out, for instance when something about love is sung. I think, the transparency is the correct word for the orchestral colour being really clear.
The way which Bizet puts the woodwinds together is just undeniably French. For instance, Verdi, wouldn’t have put exactly for the woodwind voice, which instrument plays which note in the chord. I mean that should one note be played right by two flutes, then next one by two oboes, next by two clarinets etc. or is it for one flute, one oboe, one clarinet etc. These are details that almost nobody, but the Frenchman would have written.
Then, there is a famous idea of Leitmotiv which Bizet took over very strongly from Wagner, but I would say, not in a simple, but rather singular way. So, he is bringing this Wagnerian idea, but it definitely has a French accent. It’s not WAGNER, but rather Wagnèr. For example, from the moment the famous fate motif appears immediately after overture, it is always running throughout the piece. It is wonderfully and cleverly processed in a way that you aren’t necessarily aware of.
In the introduction to Habanera, for instance, it immediately appears after the male choir sings Mais nous ne voyons pas la Carmencita!, but in a four times faster tempo and thus it becomes fandango. I think, not everyone could recognize this, and Wagner would not have done like this. He never turned Sigfried in the fandango, I can promise you. In the middle section of the card game tercet, the fate motif can also be heard, and even twice at the end of it in the bass lines of orchestra.
There is a lot of Spanish colour in the Carmen music. How did it influence, for example, the instrumentation resp. in general, that “style galant”?
Spain and France seem to have a very special relationship musically speaking. I do not know if this goes back as far the baroque era per se, but certainly the love affair French composers had for Spain has many representations. The impressionists in particular loved writing works about Spain, and in the latter part of the 19th century, Spain began to be regularly represented in stage works. I am now asking myself whether Carmen inaugurated this love affair with Spain for the French. I think have to go do some more research, because this would really be quite something if Bizet died not knowing he had written one of the most popular operas the world has ever known, but also began a trend among French composers!! Certainly, the use of tambourines, castanets, triangles, harp etc. makes Carmen a unique score for its time.
It is said that the most difficult is to perform the most popular piece like Carmen is…
What I would certainly say… Of course, if you are performing a piece that no one knows then no one knows if you did it wrong. But at the same time, the pieces which have been agreed as the most popular ones by public have to be admitted because of a very simple and good reason – their music is genius and absolutely fantastic. That’s an incredible privilege having the opportunity to disclose a genius and to bring it to life, I mean.
Many times, I played brand new pieces in concerts which took place after a month the music arrived. If something went wrong there, I still could tell myself “Well, no one have heard it before, let’s just go on…” so that you don’t get excited in the same way than if something goes wrong in a Tchaikovsky’s symphony, but also in this case the only chance is just to go on… Therefore, for me the key of being a real professional is not to make no mistakes because every human does it, but how quickly they are recovered.
For instance, many years ago, there was a ballerina in Vienna, we were very good friends. During one of the performances doing together, shortly before the end of her solo she fell on her … I only remember that I tried to conduct the last three bars little retarding and by the time I hit the last chord, she was up creating the final position. It was rather small, so called demi role, but that night she got bigger cheers than the main character Odette.
Anyway, don’t you feel the traces of routine from the numerous performances of the previous Carmen production which was included in the repertoire in 2002 – 2020?
I feel it as a wonderful advantage that the colleagues are super-familiar with their parts material and it is magnificent that if I ask for something different, we have it inside of one or two times. I mean, it is common to come to a group of artists who have played a piece before, maybe many times with one, ten or more conductors and your job is now trying to bring a new profile to it, your view inside the piece.
Of course, I do not make it in a way that I start on page one referring like “Ok, in this measure I want this then in this measure that and at that measure…” and continuing till the end of the score because this is like if I gave them a phone book asking for memorizing every name… But, particularly at the beginning, I try to bring this all down to few, very specific points which I try to point out in every moment of our work. Generally, these are more-less based on three basic elements I was talking about previously (HERE…)
Can you summarize again which are these three points?
The rhythm and its vitality, big dynamic range, and an extreme on contrast with sometimes changing in vocal colour depending on the music at the given time – whether it is heroic, lyric or when I need the ladies to sound, you know, somehow in between Notre Dame and Moulin Rouge… I really very consciously take care about these three basic elements in each point in the music I am talking about.
In the history of SND, there has probably never been a woman standing behind the conductor’s desk. The audience and the opera company will therefore certainly be interested in the fact that Zuzana Kadlčíková, the chief choirmaster of the SND Opera, also collaborates as a conductor on the new production of Carmen.
In this production she is the Second conductor and the decision about it began before I was even asked to participate in this project. So, just after we started to collaborate, I think, we immediately felt very sympatico. I don’t want to speak for her, but I am delighted to have Susanna as my colleague, and I hope with time we’ll both feel being friends. I am very satisfied with that because when the conductor down in the pit doesn’t have a confidence in the chorus master, this is terrible. If the chorus preparation has not been good, it cannot be fixed it in few rehearsals with orchestra.
Sometimes you even have feeling that the chorus master wants to be in competition with the actual conductor. For instance, back from my piano days when I was playing for the chorus rehearsals, I remember that the chorus master sometimes spent a great deal of time talking about that idiot who conducts the orchestra. This isn’t good, whoever cannot speak about his colleagues to the groups like this. Unfortunately, I have seen it so many times, and I can understand frustrations of the people who are concerned.
How would you characterize the choirs in Carmen
The choirs in Carmen are very important, also in connection with soloists. They completely provide the situations in which the story is taking place and doing this they also show different groups of society and their own culture. For example, the female workers in the cigarette factory have their own culture and the same follows also for the soldiers who are maybe not so clean in this story either, but they nevertheless represent the establishment right. Then there are smugglers, in fact the criminal guys living somewhere outside the main society representing the anti-establishment…
I mean, the society has always had the fascination for watching the ugly or horrible events. If there is a terrible accident on the highway, there is often also a block because everyone slows down to look. However, nowadays this can be done much easier with the modern technologies as can be seen in various 24-hours news channels and reality shows which started to be produced in nineties.
The same represents chorus in Carmen, especially at the end of the Act Four. It might be imagined that the people are watching a bull fight in an arena, but in the reality, there is a concept of actual watching the terrible tragedy of Carmen and José. I think, we might say that even in the original opera the bull fighting going on is a metaphor.
And therefore, I love so much that at the end of the opera we use the original chorus parts written by Bizet which are very different from that version of Giraud who rewrote them making them easier. The Bizet’s parts are much more, let’s say, earthy and lively, really like a crowd shouting while watching the bull fight, while in the Giraud version the choir always sings that happy melody… But, I mean, here has to be done something a little bit more brutal and just the original version fits to this place really perfectly.
The chorus plays a really huge and very important role in this opera, and it is absolutely crucial on the dramatic and also the musical side. Just look at this little passage from the Act One, it’s 16 measures sang by tenor voice “La cloche a sonné” and then followed up with the women, it is just a jewel of music, like every moment for the chorus in this opera. I have conducted the toreador song many times in concert without chorus. But it loses really a lot when the soloist finishes singing, and the orchestra plays alone because just the chorus adds the real finish. The chorus is crucial to many operas, but Carmen particularly.
What would you say about the differences between the Prosper Mérimée novel and the operatic libretto?
Well, Carmen does not die, Micaëla is not there and don José is much more self-conscious… I think, the librettists were trying to make an effective piece for the opera theatre. There is a wonderful parallel in cinematography, the film of Stanley Kubrick based on the novel by Stephen King The Shining shot in 1980 with Jack Nicholson in the main role. It is very different than the novel, but so much better because of these differences. Kubrick just took the inspiration and created something new. And I think, that’s totally what Meilhac and Halévy did with Carmen, rather than to take the original story and set it for music. They adapted it creating a theatre piece.
For example, in the libretto appeared two love triangles which are not in the Mérimée’s novel. These are Carmen-José-Michaëla and Carmen-José-Escamillo. Each of these solo roles has their own character and needs the singer who can portray it. And not just the singer, but also the director who is understanding and seeing it this way. I know that Lubor Cukr does because when we first talked about, I would say, we just really found ourselves on the same path being the same kind of theatre people.
So, the librettists and Bizet created something really novel, but the public was not very comfortable with this, at least after premiere in 1875…
Yes, the opinions of all these critics are known, for example, now it can be hardly imagined what they wanted to say by the statement that there were no memorable melodies. I don’t know about the culture of people going to the Opéra Comique in the 19th century, I can’t say who they were and what did they like, but certainly in the course of time where we land today, we are quite accustomed to, maybe familiar with – or we even enjoy certain types of theatre and cinema which have an uncomfortable element inside. Maybe we are definitely looking for something what leaves us thinking… I don’t know what those people watching the Carmen premiere were looking for. Some of them maybe just for popcorn, some for Disney, but instead they got Stanley Kubrick.
Another one of my favourite directors, David Lynch, is also the same way and his pieces simply stay with me. But this doesn’t mean that watching his film is like a wonderful massage experience, it is an experience indeed. But this is great just about the Carmen that it has not only the great music so that you can just sit, listen, and let it to wash over you if you want. This is also nice, but it also provides a really attractive story and I think it’s going to be very interesting in this production.
It is said that at least the end of the piece is like an anticipation of verismo.
Yes, completely, and totally but it is also fantastic musically because of that famous cyclical form when the theme presented at the very beginning comes back at the very end of the piece. Precisely the same is also in the Carmen. The beginning is the famous march, followed by the famous fate motif and at the end there is also the same march combined with the chorus, and again the fate motif. There are many wonderful examples of such bow in the French music by composers like César Franck and others.
When I was a kid it was the only time I won a competition, I played there a Piano Concerto by the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturyan, I’m very partial to it, it’s wonderful piece. At the beginning of the first movement there is an incredibly great theme with a lot of pathos. After that the music is totally different and goes through the full first, second and last movements, written as a traditional piano concerto after Tchaikovsky or another framework. But at the very end of the piece that great introductory theme suddenly turns back. It’s amazing moment felt like you ran into a wall.
I remember I knew this piece before I had ever heard Tchaikovsky B flat minor Concerto and when I was hearing it for the first time I still kept waiting for the return of that magnificent introduction – but it didn’t come…
The questions were asked by: Ján Marták