I'm digressing. I also showed my students a clip from Bizet's opera, Carmen (the Franco Rosi 1984 film version, OBVS):
The gypsy Carmen is a loose amalgam of different possible ethnicities, especially in the original novella by Prosper Merimee. With wild hair and olive skin, Carmen is ethnically ambiguous, causing Don Jose at one point to ask her (in the novella) if she's possibly a Moor or (dare he think it!) Jewish.
As I was watching this youtube clip with my students in class my mind wandered over to the fact that at some point in the 20th century, Carmen became a character that many African American singers could take on. Last year at the annual American Musicological Society Conference in Pittsburgh, musicologist Kristen Turner from UNC-Chapel Hill presented her research on the first African American opera company from the early 20th century. One of the first productions they staged was Bizet's Carmen. By the 1960s, it seemed perfectly acceptable for African American singers to play her:
But this Carmen business goes beyond a few singers being type-casted for the role. When we see new interpretations or retellings of the Carmen tale, they're retold as black tales (African American, more specifically).
Carmen Jones is an excellent example of that. Premiering in 1943 as a Broadway musical (and later in 1954 as a film), Carmen Jones now takes place during WWII at an American parachute factory instead of a Spanish cigarette factory. I think most people are familiar with the 1954 film version, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. It's colorful, entertaining, and an intriguing retelling to think about.
Musicologist Annegret Fauser's article on Carmen Jones might be a good place to start if you're looking for more information: "“Dixie Carmen”: War, Race, and Identity in Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones (1943)" in Journal of the Society for American Music, Volume 4, No. 2 (May 2010), pp. 127-174: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7530408
Of course I would be remiss if I didn't mention the *other* other Carmen, which is Beyonce's 2001 TV Movie, Carmen: A Hip-Hopera (I kid you not):
This production has everything my pop-culture addled brain and spectacle-loving heart desires. This time, Carmen Brown is an aspiring actress who causes trouble wherever she goes. The cast in this production reads like a "who's who" list of late 90s/early 2000s actors and pop/hip-hop musicians: Mekhi Phifer (!), Mos Def (!), Wycleaf Jean, Joy Bryant, Lil Bow Wow, and Jermaine Dupri (!) all make an appearance at one point or another.
And because we all need to see a clip of this in action:
As I mentioned in one of our previous SGS posts, I'm drawn to spectacle, so I'm eating this up like it's cake.
Obvious fact of the day: Black American singers have historically had a difficult time landing roles in the opera world. I don't have time to get into it, but let's just say that there were (and still are) racial biases in operatic typecasting. But what is intriguing to me about Bizet's opera, Carmen, are the many transformations it's undergone since the late 19th century. It's not just that Bizet's original production lent itself well to having different singers perform it. Rather, by the end of the 20th century, the opera became (in American popular culture anyway) black-owned. Beyonce's Carmen was *ridiculous* in a glorious late 90s/early 2000s pop music sort of way. But it's not like Queen Bey (all hail!) was stepping into uncharted territory by reimagining this tale. In fact, critics denounced it as unimaginative.
I'll keep picking away at the "Black Carmen" phenomenon over the years, I'm sure. I'm not done mining this yet. There are just too many gems in this history. Any thoughts on other "black Carmens" out there that I might have missed? Please post in the comments.