Exploring Female Interiority in Bizet’s Carmen through Roxane Gay and Carmen Maria Machado
Note: the following essay contains mentions of violence towards women, and spoilers for the opera Carmen and Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch.”
A hush falls over the audience as the curtain rises, the heat rolls off the stage, and we are transported to Seville. Through a cast of rough-cut, hard-scrabble characters, we follow Don José, a man forced to enter the army as punishment for killing a man, as he agonizes over which life to choose: the siren song of small town simplicity from Micaëla, singing remembered lullabies in the words of his mother; or a high-stakes life in the mountains, with full-bodied freedom and opportunity as promised by Carmen. Deserting his army post, he leaves the safety of Seville for this mountain adventure, only to find that Carmen’s life is her own, and what had been a passing fancy for her in town is, months later, an imposition and annoyance. This rejection, coupled with his isolation from all he has known, creates a perfect storm for Don José. When Micaëla arrives with news that his beloved mother is ill, he hurries back to her bedside, and descends even further into agony and grief. Stalking Carmen outside a Seville bullring some weeks later, he roars and blames her for his pain, while she remains steadfast that they owed nothing to each other. Finally, Don José stabs her in frustration and grief. Carmen dies to the sound of the parade marching behind them: a light snuffed out in the midst of the hustle and bustle.
In the beginning stages of our current COVID-19 paradigm, I was in my first week of Carmen with the Pittsburgh Opera, since cancelled as theaters all over the world have closed for the foreseeable future. We had just begun the rehearsal process: constructing scenes, discussing relationships, singing music we know so well we almost don’t register the intricacies of melody or text. This was to be my fourth production playing Carmen in my short time as a professional opera singer, and I was finally fully confident in my personal portrayal of this storied, larger-than-life character. As a mezzo-soprano, or lower-voiced female singer, I dreamed of playing Carmen all through my school years and training, and I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to explore this piece in gorgeous full productions for 2200-seat theaters as well as stripped-down, intimate presentations with no set or costumes. Each of these encounters has illuminated a new facet of the musical and dramatic genius of the piece, and I relish every moment I spend on stage as this character.
As always when preparing a role, I return to the source material: the 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée. Credited as a founder of the short story, Mérimée is obsessed with the exoticism of The Other, presenting landscapes and characters that challenge a white European sensibility, in a way that only another white European can, throughout his works. Carmen, his pseudo adventure story, involves bandits, prison escapes, and wandering in the desert, alongside his descriptions of Romany peoples and his famous untamable heroine. But within this age-old descriptor of Carmen as “untamable” lies a tacit threat: women should strive to be tamable, and indeed, tamed and tempered in their daily life, in order to avoid Carmen’s fate. What is conspicuously missing from this source material is any comment from the woman herself for herself. Of the three original chapters, the first two are in the voice of an archaeologist who comes upon our Don José in the desert, meeting up with him once he has been arrested for the murder of Carmen. In the third chapter, we have shifted to Don José, who will tell us from start to finish his life alongside Carmen, from first encounter to final thrust. Throughout this narrative, we have a particular psychology: one that insists on Carmen’s dangerous unknowability, repeatedly demanding that she adhere to the rules of José’s culture despite her clear instructions that she is merely a visitor to that world, and the subsequent unraveling of José’s mental state as he cannot reconcile both the cultural and interpersonal implications of her independence. She exists primarily as a foil to Don José’s shattered expectations.
This reading, however, doesn’t really jibe with what I have experienced about Carmen as an opera and cultural artifact. Bizet’s 1875 work is one of, if not the, top most-performed works in the repertory in any given year. Its music is used in car commercials and Italian pasta sauce commercials (French origins notwithstanding), and it serves as the inspiration for countless other works dealing with feminine independence and will. Her obfuscated personality in the novella allows a level of projection that is both liberating and extremely problematic. She has become a touchstone of such popularity, and yet we have never known her, and to many performers and aficionados, that is her most beguiling quality.
To me, this unknowability is willful. It allows us to continue to project upon women all sorts of violence, from the distaste for wanton sexuality to the utter lack of remorse for their deaths, since it is their fault that they don’t adhere to (white patriarchal) cultural norms. Our insistence on Carmen's unknowability belies our willful ignorance of women at the intersections of oppression, women who violate our ideas linking worthiness with purity, virginity, and whiteness through their interaction with a deck which is stacked well against them.
Carmen is both representative of sexual femininity, and of women’s rage or “feral” nature, even becoming an object of disdain. My own mother, who loves basically everything I do, let me know after my first performances that, as much as it pained her to say, she hated me when I was Carmen, that I was mean and manipulative and willful in ways that made her deeply uncomfortable when the body presenting those facets was her own daughter. Conversely and simultaneously, I hear that it must be so wonderful to revel in a character so deeply feminine and sensual in such a public way, and I freely admit that it is super fun. I am also keenly aware of how judged, policed, and vilified each of those behaviors is, speaking to a much larger perception of women and their bodies than I, as an individual, could hope to even confront, never mind embody in all its complexities.
And so, I turn to literature. I find the articulation of nuanced psychology and emotional landscapes most pointedly through literature. Additionally, of all the art forms, I would argue that literature and theater are at the cutting-edge of our cultural evolution, and I am here for it in every way. Experimental fiction is breaking the bounds of our expressed reality, allowing us to see new possibility as it gives us new language and forms of expressing ourselves. As a largely-unilingual white American culture, this is of especially vital importance: culture is ultimately a structural expression of ideas, and that expression cannot evolve without actions as described by words. In this case, the words of Roxane Gay and Carmen Maria Machado.
These women introduced me to my own pain as well as the pain of so many others. They do so with care and grace and an unfathomable degree of craft, transmuting an existential ache into the facets of a life best-lived, ripe for interrogation and transformation. Through their words, I find myself, Carmen, and a host of other feminine experiences. I find compassion, nuance, and grace to bring to every relationship of my life. I see the power of our archetypal stories to dictate culture, and the potential for change and comfort in our repetition of those stories.
Roxane Gay’s work in any medium serves as inspiration for the whole of my life, creative and otherwise, and her collection Difficult Women is no exception. The prose is piercing, gutting, direct, and so brutally honest about women’s pain and our ability to withstand, live, and thrive under the circumstances we’ve been given. With almost paradoxically tender care, it rages through the various experiences of women and our coping mechanisms: loves and losses, full-throated triumphs, the whole miasma of our lives. The collection as a whole questions this notion of difficult women, women like Carmen, their origins, their livelihoods. It allows for something beyond the duality of the pure maiden and the wanton harlot.
Gay’s characters wedge themselves into the interstices between patriarchal structures and male expectations. In the twenty-one stories, we see countless combinations and permutations in reaction to those parameters. From the joy of unexpected patience and love in “North Country” to the transfiguration of love into grief back into love in the harrowing “Break All The Way Down,” Gay pulls no punches on the dark, sweaty, sensual, and violent happenstances of life, each echoing the sharpness, fragility, and worthiness of these women to be captured in a deep and artful way. What’s left at the end of this collection is a breathless love, a deep appreciation for a breadth of experience that could never be captured in a single narrative, that is fundamentally wary of reducing any one woman to the simplicity of her words. Her women are made quite literally of knives and glass, conditions made necessary by a generationally traumatic experience of the world, forcing a change of state to ensure survival. This collection reminds us that even the enigma exists in a maelstrom of expectation and experience.
Adaptation is certainly the name of the game for Carmen throughout Bizet’s opera, and a woman made of knives is quite apt. Her sharpness, quick thinking, and willingness to compromise her bodily safety are all that save her from prison, rape, and various other forms of erasure. Our insistence that she is impervious to the violence inherent in the score is, frankly, incorrect: Bizet underlines Don José’s violent past in the spoken dialogue; interactions between the soldier Morales, Micaëla, and the soldiers who open the piece quickly escalate from playful to threatening of her bodily safety; likewise the give and take between Carmen and her associate Dancaïre over who makes decisions for individual members of their group. Every scene provides opportunities to explore ownership over women’s lives and livelihood.
To overlook this concept also erases Carmen as a human invested in her own survival, one capable of good and bad decisions to that end—this imperfection being another aspect of women for which we culturally leave very little room—and relinquishes our responsibility for her death. The question is not whether or not she is dead at the end of the piece, but, as my director Crystal Manich articulated recently, what have we shown the audience in the two and a half hours before she dies? Have we created a world that is stacked against her, thereby drowning her under the weight of a societal tidal wave? Or have we strung her up as an example of all we fantasize about women while also executing her as a painful reminder of who’s in charge here?
When it comes to the gaslit surreality of feminine experience, Carmen Maria Machado has a singular ability to convey the visceral rollercoaster. Her collection Her Body and Other Parties revels in the perseverating, obsessive, and fraught experience of being a woman amongst patriarchal structures. Have you ever heard the urban folktale about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck? Out of the familiar folktale, Machado, in “The Husband Stitch,” crafts a harrowing portrait of male entitlement while keeping the voice of the woman central. The story opens with a prescription to the reader about how to read the story, insisting upon a set of rules from the get-go, including the invisibility and interchangeability of all women, and the hereditarily robust and serendipitous nature of manhood. With the patriarchal rules established, Machado’s narrator immediately questions her role in these rules, demanding attention and intimacy from both the reader and her eventual husband. In this way, Machado draws what we refer to as a “strong” woman: one who can withstand and operate within the rules set out for her while maintaining a strong sense of her personhood.
This woman marries the man she is deeply attracted to, fulfills her every hedonistic fantasy, and they have a child beautifully, all alongside deep misgivings of having no control over her life, her body, her day-to-day experience. Her one request is that the green ribbon around her neck, as representative of her bodily sanctity, never be touched, but this is impossible. Her husband is unable to resist the unknown, torturing her repeatedly throughout their life with cajoling and threats about the ribbon, even passing this obsession onto their son, who is born with no interest and is gifted this fascination behaviorally. She persistently explains, at first patiently, then angrily, then begging, that this thing is hers. It is not to be touched. It is not to be shared. When their son has left for college, and they can enjoy the end of a long life together, she wakes up to find her husband again probing the ribbon. Suddenly she is exhausted, realizing that this man, a good man with whom she has had a good life, will never be satisfied until he can untie her. She asks again, making clear that this is against her wishes, is it necessary for him to remove it? He hungrily insists on knowing every inch of her, of seeing and believing and owning. You may know how this ends. As her head rolls off of her body, he is left holding the ribbon, and our narrator simply dissolves, unmade.
There is a dry sense of apathy and irony at the end of “The Husband Stitch” that echoes the operatic journey of Carmen. The deep misgivings, the posturing, asking, begging in the face of persistent asks from the male figures of the world, and the ultimate exhaustion in the face of this world structure are all present in the opera. This is not to say that Carmen ever stops fighting for her personhood, but rather that she is overwhelmed and drained dry in the face of Don Josè’s institutionally-supported persistence in owning her. Ultimately, he is only a symptom, and she is only one woman fighting to remain herself amongst all of these prescriptions.
One of the most maligned aspects of Carmen’s character is her sexual freedom, and here Gay and Machado have much to offer. Both authors write about sex and sexuality in a way that is refreshingly unpoliced or judged. The language around sex and intimacy floats from matter-of-fact to surreal and echoes the experiential complexities of those relationships. Likewise, these characters embody every aspect of their physical selves, and sex ceases to be a tool of control or violence, something potentially dangerous and therefore in need of control, but rather an act of expression in and of itself. In Machado’s “Inventory,” we get a list of sexual experiences which happen to take place before and during an apocalyptic pandemic (reading this now feels a bit surreal). By centering the various forms of intimacy, unfettered by issues of gender, age, geography, religion, and one woman’s experience of all that possibility, we see a kernel of truth about women and sex: potential for deep connection to others and herself on a myriad of levels, including pubescent floundering, marriage, grief, attraction, mutual interest, the need for human connection, intimacy through and despite violence. The list ultimately reminds us of the great responsibility of intimacy, what it asks of us with others, rather than the interests of one or the other being held supreme. In this light, it is impossible to pass judgement, since these choices encompass a totality of life, illustrating a best-we-can attitude that is compassionate toward all parties.
The stories we tell have the power to change who we are on a personal and cultural level. In particular, Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” is not only a familiar tale itself, but includes tangential discussions of other urban legends and ghost stories that are familiar to our cultural ethos. In this way, every story we tell is surrounded by other stories, other articulations and understandings, reverberating through our consciousness and informing our calculations. It is a reminder to tell the best and most truthful stories always, for our own safety.
The opera industry is a fascinating place to work at the moment; we are living in a kind of watershed moment as we attempt to reckon our responsibility towards cultural change with the museum-like veneration that categorically defines our art form. As a single performer, having no control over a production, creative team, costume, and the obvious givens of text and music, my tool for activism is in the interiority of my characters. These contemporarily-situated motivations give me options for movement and stage-craft that, while not necessarily earth-shattering, communicate deep truths for audiences about playing these (mostly) women in our current time. I want to pay homage to the women as they existed. I don’t find the need to change the endings or manipulate the existing work in any way. Simply by allowing them to speak with our ever-evolving, sensitive and nuanced articulations of pain, freedom, love, and feminine selfhood, we acknowledge that they have always lived here among us, and now may be given full voice.
Physical distancing and COVID-19 have undoubtedly shifted the entire paradigm of our lives. Physical distancing means an end to communal music and entertainment experiences, and since these creatives rely on live performance, all opera singers and a large number of performing arts creatives are out of work and unable to work from home in any viable way. Opera singers work on pay-to-play contracts, where they are paid in lump sum during a performance, and many of those contracts are subject to force majeure stipulating that performances cancelled because of the pandemic do not require any compensation, even if we were already in rehearsal or in the midst of a performance run. These cancellations have extended into 2021 for some performers, wiping out a year of income with no hope of recouping up-front costs. Everyone is hurting right now, and artists have essentially had the financial rug ripped out from under them. Artist Relief Tree is providing bridge funding while we look for other jobs and sources of income, and if you are able, we would be forever grateful for your support.