Opera and the Habanera From Carmen

Opera Star Anna Caterina Antonacci as CarmenSince our hacker friend Dzz screwed up both our morning posts yesterday, I thought we would take a very quick break from Jules Shear and talk briefly about opera. I understand: pretty much no one I know likes opera. I used to be the same way. But when I was still in high school, I had a piano teacher. He was also a singer, and he taught singing to some of the talented young people in the area. He was not a very pleasant man — he terrified me. But one day he told me that a student of his was going be giving a recital at the local college. So I went.

The singer was a soprano — perhaps 19 years old. And she was accompanied by my teacher on the piano. And I was blown away. It was only then that I heard the human voice as a musical instrument and not just something for communicating with. So I enjoyed the performance the same way I would have enjoyed a violin recital. And ever since then, I’ve taken it for granted that opera is beautiful and worthy. And it still shocks me to hear someone say, “I don’t like opera.” To me, that sounds like, “I don’t like music.”

But in addition, opera is theater. I remember reading something that Mozart had written about a performance of Hamlet. And he nailed everything that was wrong in the play. The greatest opera composers were also great theater technicians. I thought about this because this morning, I was listening to Carmen. I came upon the following clip from the Royal Opera House production of it. It is, arguably, the most famous song from Carmen, the “Habanera” or “Love Is a Rebellious Bird.” (It’s hard to say, because the music from Carmen is incredibly well known, and you probably could sing at least five of its main melodies.)

This production is everything that opera can be — and indeed very often is these days. Broadway musicals try to do this kind of stuff and almost always fail miserably by comparison. You can well imagine that a man would desert the army and his bride for Anna Caterina Antonacci in this short scene. I remember a line from Amadeus, “Only opera can do this!” I quite agree.

Opera Afterword

Think about this: every one in that chorus is an incredibly good — even great — singer. That kind of thing always amazes me. The talent of humanity is amazing.

7 thoughts on “Opera and the Habanera From Carmen

  1. You are so right about opera. A great art form that many do not appreciate because they don’t give it a chance. A good place to start is on Saturdays. Many FM stations across the country carry the weekly broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera Company. They have announcers who discuss the operas and singers and it is very interesting. Tony Randall did it for years until he passed over. Alec Baldwin is now doing some commentary on opera and classical music in general. If you like music at all, I recommend listening to classical music and opera as it is very moving. Check out the movie “Philadelphia” in a late scene where Tom Hanks (dying from AIDS) is listening to Maria Callas sing and Denzel Washington (a homophobe in this movie) is watching him describe what Callas is singing about. Washington starts to feel compassion for Hank’s character for the first time. Great acting and a great scene. Listen to the music.

    • It doesn’t play on my local station, but I will look for it online. It does help to know something about the music. It really doesn’t matter if it is classical or hip hop. You need a context. That’s something that the classical music community has really embraced the last couple of decades. When Michael Tilson Thomas started giving little lectures before concerts, people loved it. Of course, it goes way back. I remember seeing this when I was a teen and it blew me away: Bernstein Explains Beethoven’s Fifth.

  2. The 1950’s had some great live TV programs. Live plays and specials like those of Bernstein talking about music. You do need some background for context in anything. I studied piano for 8 years with a jazz pianist named Barney Green who taught me to love all types of music. I am forever grateful to him. That is why I mentioned the Met broadcasts because they do supply some context. It also helps to go to some live performances as opera performed live is very exciting. Listening to Fischer-Dieskau or Sutherland or some of today’s singers will possibly awaken a desire in folks to learn and listen more to this music.

    • Gore Vidal wrote tons of material for 50’s live TV, and it’s almost all lost. I would love to see things like his adaptations of Stephen Crane stories done by all those wonderful stock performers. We have sitcoms and game-show footage from the 1950s, because those were done on film. Most of the live performances are gone; videotape didn’t exist until later.

    • Yes, it is interesting to look back at some of the early television before the networks realized what dreck they could get away with providing. Of course, that was also in the days when the FCC took the idea of public airwaves seriously. Now reporting the weather two times a day is enough.

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