Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Brief History of the "Black Carmen" (finally, Kira gets to talk about Beyonce!)

Yesterday morning, I gave a lecture to about 130 students on orientalism in art and music. I talked about Puccini's Madame Butterfly at one point, and I think I might have terrified my students a little bit by sharing with them something I call the "Madame Butterfly effect:" the European-American feminization of East Asia. I showed them Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Katy Perry playing "geisha"(look up Katy Perry's reasons for playing a geisha. I just can't even right now). In feminizing the East, I argued, the West (used loosely here) also distorts/dismisses/rejects Asian masculinity as well. Which, I told my students, is why the Asian male character in the tv show, "2 Broke Girls," is, um, disappointing. We're supposed to see him as asexual, incapable of wooing any American woman regardless of his antics. He's a small child, a boy - not a man - who is trying to act much older than he is. When he attempts to be a strong and stern manager, he's "play-acting" his manhood. Because he doesn't have any.

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:

A young (and very pretty!) Grace Bumrby in the role of Carmen.

The fabulous diva, Leontyne Price, as Carmen. Which I find a bit odd, given her voice type, no? Regardless: she is SERVING IT on this album cover. Serving it to the Gods.

The mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves has made a name for herself playing Carmen as well.

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.


  1. One company that did cast African-American women in roles was, of course, the Met. Jessye Norman played Sieglinde in their famed Ring Cycle under Levine. Norman took that role in 1989 (http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/26/arts/review-opera-first-walkure-of-met-season.html). I felt that this casting was particularly significant since Sieglinde is the identical twin of Siegmund, yet there was no kind of concession made to the fact that Norman playing this role--at least, not when you watch the production, there could have been more brouhaha at the time. Props to the Met for this casting call not only in an 'unconventional' role, but in one of its most prestigious productions.

    1. Mad props to the Met, yo. Mad props. And you're right; no one blinks an eye at Jessye Norman as Sieglinde in this production. It's so great.

  2. When Miami built its new performing arts center (which is one part opera house) about five or ten years ago, the first opera they put on was Carmen. I was curious about the identity issues going on there because the production apparently emphasized the Spanish cultural elements of the plot and made strange Picasso-esque references during the Bull Fight. Anyway they put on another version last year with the role of Carmen played by Kendall Gladen while Macaela was played by a native Cuban American Elaine Alvarez. I suppose it speaks to different groups' identity as part of the European diaspora, or the perception there of. But it's a situation i really want someone to go an investigate and report back.

    1. Oh, fascinating! What year was this production? I smell a guest post, Eric...!