The unmaking of an American aficionado

Opinion January 9, 2013 0 Comments

A bullfight depicted by Edouard Manet.

by Hugh GIlmore

I’ve never quite figured out why, but I spent much of 2008 obsessed with Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” I read the original novel by Prosper Mérrimée (1845), Georges Bizet’s adaptation of it (1875), and then viewed about two-dozen complete recorded performances. Still hungering, I scoured YouTube for every clip I could find. Nearly every night that year I watched at least one act of “Carmen.”

Word of my mania got around to a scholar who lives in our community and who specializes in opera and “the changing image of Carmen over time.” This woman, now a friend who requests anonymity, also collects Carmen imagery – playbills, postcards, and cabinet photographs, for example, and recorded performances. She invited me to see her collection.

We spent a wonderful evening looking through the albums she’s built over the years. That was both a thrill and an education. The experience also sharpened my curiosity about the Spanish “types” portrayed in the opera (and in the excellent film version by Franceso Rosi in 1984, starring Julia Migenes and Placido Domingo).

In case your memory needs refreshing: Two characters dominate this French opera that is set in Spain. Don José is a naive country boy who loves his mother and is betrothed to a sweet girl from back home. He has joined the army and is stationed in Seville. He meets the enticing cigar factory worker, Carmen, when she teasingly throws a flower at him, thus casting the Gypsy’s Curse on him (i.e., causes him to love, crave, and obsessively desire her).

Almost immediately, he betrays the army by releasing her from prison when she promises to be his lover. He is stripped of rank and imprisoned. After serving his brig time, he compounds his problems with the army by fighting with his superior officer over Carmen and then deserting the army to join her as part of a smuggling crew.

As usually portrayed, Carmen is a singing, dancing libido of remarkable beauty. And she’s almost immaculately selfish, making her at once frightening and admirable. She is honest and independent to the point where she will not back down on her beliefs (or emotions) even when threatened.

Don José has Carmen’s love for only a brief while. She loses interest in his provincial, simple, possessive ways, even though he has thrown over everything in his life for her.

She meets Escamillo, a famous matador, when he stops by the local tavern and sings “The Toreador Song.” She falls for him, he for her. She stops loving Don José. José stalks her. She remains defiant. He kills her, and sings the opera’s last words, “Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!” The last word in obsessive love.

Or is it? One night towards the end of my own obsessive year with “Carmen,” the opera, a thought came to me: What if Don José is not tragic, but criminally insane? What if he’s merely a typically abusive perpetrator of domestic violence? Like one of those stalkers who waits in the parking lot, a gun beside him, for his girl friend, or ex-wife, to get out of work so he can shoot her? Another case of “If I can’t have you, no one can.”

And since I was flipping Spanish types on their backs that night, I also wondered: What if Escamillo was not the cheesy, phony, pampered public idol he usually is played as. What if he was a man who really loved Carmen? What if she was not just another woman to him? What if, for the first time in his life, after so many conquests (Hah! women threw themselves at him), he’d found the one woman who put his hungry soul to rest?

And what if, just as true love came into his life, a tragic twist emerged to ruin his dream: A deranged ex-lover murdered the love of his life. Would that not be sad? Would it not be moving – to see him again in late middle age, still trying to deal with the memories, trying not to be bitter, trying to retain whatever good had come to him from knowing her?

I decided to write a novel from Escamillo’s point of view. The concept brewed and stewed within me for a while as I began doing research on Spain, Spanish culture, Gypsies, and bullfighting, especially (for plot reasons) in the time centering on the Opera’s first production, 1875.

The story I wanted to write took the license of pretending that Carmen and Don José and Escamillo and the other characters had actually been real people. And that the tragic murder and love triangle had received major tabloid coverage back in 1874. And that Georges Bizet had read those newspaper stories and had begun at once to write an a docu-drama opera, a timely exploitation of a hot news story.

Escamillo, now broken-hearted and considering retiring from the bullring, travels to Paris to stop the production, or at least have it rewritten. Carmen was not a slattern, he wants them to know. Don José was not a pitiable hero, neither. And he, Escamillo, “el Toreador,” was not just a matinée idol, but also a man of substance. He truly, deeply, loved Carmen.

Tell the story, if you must, he wants to tell Monsieur Bizet, but tell the truth!

Thus began my research, for writing such a novel, into the mind, manners, morals and mores of … not the “toreador” – the Spanish would never use such a French-invented word – the Spanish matador. For the next few years I read dozens of histories, sociologies, analyses, and most especially, memoirs of persons associated with every level of the Spanish National pastime: La Fiesta Brava: bullfighting as it is called in English.

I reveled in my learning, but came to revile what I learned.

Note: This week Hugh Gilmore published a new novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour,” a love and suspense story about an explorer’s unfortunate meet-up with some dangerous characters on a train. Available now in Kindle format at Amazon.com and through other e-book devices. The print version will be published in late January.

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