Sunday, August 6, 2006

I'm Not a Music Critic, but I'm Critiquing Anyway

I had the strangest opera experience Saturday night. I am no music critic, and I am no expert on opera, but I'm going to give you my impressions anyway. :) (Patty, please forgive me for pretending to be a hated music critic!)

My dad and I went to Brevard Music Center to see the the Janiec Opera Company's last BMC performance of the summer: Carmen. Before the opera began, a voice came over the PA and said the usual stuff--turn off your cell phones, there will be two intermissions, etc. But then the voice kept talking. It mentioned something about cigarette smoke, so I thought, "Oh. They'll be smoking onstage, and they want to let us know in case anyone should take offense and/or choke to death." But then the voice kept talking some more. Everyone quieted down to listen.

Apparently, the woman cast as Carmen was allergic to cigarette smoke, so she wouldn't be singing her part. A mezzo soprano in the orchestra pit would be singing it. The woman cast in the leading role would be lip-synching.


My dad and I both thought the announcement said that the lip-synching would be for the first act only, so that was a relief. Even if the lip-synching was bad, at least it would only be for one of the four acts.

The orchestra, conducted by Steven Smith, played the overture. The music was fast and furious and seemed to fly right past. It was over before I knew it. The curtain came up. The setting was muted--a pale gold wall, a mossy sea green banister, a cream-colored wall, and a TABAC sign hanging above the singers. Robin Vest was the set designer. I liked the set.

The Carmen character doesn't come out until several minutes into the first act. The first time I ever saw Carmen performed (in 1991), all of the cigarette girls were slim and beautiful, and since the men were turning away from them to see the sexy CARMEN, I naturally expected Carmen to be this lasciviously attractive woman. The singer who played Carmen, however, was short, squat, and rather homely. Of course, any opera audience must have a willing suspension of disbelief. Some performances, however, require a bit more willingness than others.

I wondered ... would tonight's Carmen look the part? I hoped she would.

Tonight's Carmen, Sophie Roland, was spot-on. Raunch personified, her character swiveled across the stage, leered at the guys, and conveyed the raw sexual power you would expect of a Carmen. There was only one problem ... she was lip-synching. I'm not sure who was the actual mezzo soprano, but I think it was Audrey Gamez. Whoever it was, she sang beautifully ... but the lip-synching was rather distracting.

It was painfully obvious. Sometimes Onstage Carmen would close her mouth while Orchestra Pit Carmen kept singing. Sometimes Orchestra Pit Carmen would sing an "oo" note while Onstage Carmen grinned or leered. Try to grin or leer and sing "oooooo." You can't do it. Unless you lip-synch it.

Another thing, not immediately obvious, annoyed me about the lip-synching, and that was the sound itself, and its lack of ... direction. Acoustically speaking. It was like this: Orchestra Pit Carmen was standing still and singing into a microphone (I could tell because I sometimes heard that popping sound that an aspirated "p" makes whenever it's puffed into a mike). Onstage Carmen, meanwhile, was slinking around the stage, straddling things, turning this way and that. You would expect the voice quality to change--when she's at stage right, her voice should sound different from when she's at stage left. When she's facing one way, it will sound slightly different from when she's facing another way. But, because Orchestra Pit Carmen wasn't moving and sang into a microphone, the voice just stayed steady. This effect was not so apparent at first, but it was ultimately more distracting than the obvious lip-synching flubs that went on.

An intermission followed the first act. My dad and I discussed the opera so far, and we said we were glad the lip-synching was only for the first act.

Act Two. Carmen struts onto the stage, leering. She opens her mouth to sing. Familiar voice. Ten seconds into the act, I realize she's still lip-synching.


Several aspects of the opera disappointed me; usually, BMC's performances are really wonderful. The others all sang their own parts and did a fine job, but the casting seemed kind of odd. The leading man was a very portly black man named Allen Pinkney, Jr. He had an amazing and powerful tenor voice, but he didn't look like the strapping, handsome Spanish soldier one would expect a Don Jose to look like. Willing suspension of disbelief. Of course, BMC is a summer program, an educational experience for young musicians, and not a wholly professional thing. But still ... The leading woman looked the part but didn't sing, and the leading man sang beautifully but didn't look the part. Strange.

The music was good. But not good enough. At the end of the second act, the curtain dropped for the second intermission. I turned to my dad and said, "Ready to go?"

"Yep," he said, and we left.

We were both amused and disappointed. The performance left much to be desired. And it was so strange, having the character of Carmen lip-synch. I mean, she's the main character! Did they not know in advance that she was allergic to cigarette smoke? Couldn't they smoke fake cigarettes or something? Could they have used an understudy?

I don't know. Maybe the understudy was sick and Orchestra Pit Carmen had never practiced being Onstage Carmen. Whatever the reason, the result was unfortunate. There were a lot of talented people on the stage, in the orchestra, and behind the scenes tonight, but their efforts didn't add up to a satisfying performance for this listener.

I'll never make a good music critic. This is the closest I could come to a scathing review, y'all.

Next year they're doing La Boheme. Maybe next year will be better.


Anonymous said...

I just love blogs. Endless space for the musings of ingnorami. Operatic singing is...difficult. You should try it. Sound production to fill an opera house from tiny little vocal chords. The amazing thing about it is, tiny vocal chords come in all sorts of packages. You cannot determine if someone will be a great singer by the way that they look. If they happen to look like Cecilia Bartolli- so be it. If they happen to look like Pavarotti- o.k. Those who know about opera and what constitutes a really great talent suspend their disbelief as to what a character should look like in order to enjoy the amazing quality of the voice in the context of the dramatics. Uneducated opera-goers such as you do not understand what they are hearing and, unfortunately, expect to see broadway singers- visually cast as well as vocally. These singers are invariable microphoned so the requirements for their voices are not as stringent.

And as to your lip-synching problem. If a singer had an allergic reaction to cigarette smoke (they would not have used real cigarettes until the dress rehearsal most likely) that means her vocal chords were inflamed and incapable of phonating. Why on earth would you expect her to come out singing in the second act? And, as it seems you attended an amateur production, there was likely no understudy- making an off-stage singer necessary. No one else would have been able to do the blocking of the role.

The opera singer is in a constantly precarious position: singing some of the world's most difficult music while moving about the stage, filling an opera house with sound, AND trying to stay healthy and not get sick from someone's little kid on the subway-or cigarette smoke.


Elizabeth Westerman said...

Hi! I was a part of the Carmen cast you're referencing and would like to clarify a few things that may help in understanding this oh-so-interesting performance...I still tell this story to my stage colleagues today! Audrey Gamez was originally scheduled to be the only Carmen, however she never learned the entire role. Sophie Roland, the fabulous mezzo, was brought in to replace her but was housed in a cabin with mold and thus lost her voice. The cigarette smoke was not what harmed her! Sophie was brought in because she had done the role a few times and was quite brilliant at it, as you could see but not hear.

When Sophie lost her voice four or five days before the show, and Audrey had never learned the rest of the show anyway, the third singer (whose name I cannot remember) was brought in to sing from the pit. This singer had only ever performed the Dialogues of Carmen, the shorter version of the opera, and thus had three days to learn the rest of the music. You can imagine that the director did not also rush to pile on the blocking for this new singer.

Thus, the night that you attended Carmen (the only night Audrey was allowed to sing, and only the first act at that), Audrey sang and acted the first act from stage, Sophie acted the rest of the opera from stage lip synching (because Audrey did not know the blocking for the rest of the opera) and the third singer sang from the pit (because she did not know the blocking either). A complicated mess - which resulted from one singer not doing a professional job and learning her role in the first place.

Four Months Later ...

It's 8:04 a.m. Normally at this time, I write in my journal for about an hour before starting my day. It's not the most exciting jou...