Carmen the Mopera
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
September 20, 2010
By its very nature, opera is a type of performance that invites parody—it is loud, larger than life, and stylized. At the same time, it is also a type of performance that inspires a frenzied loyalty from those who love it. The 20th century was full of opera parodies from everyone from The Marx Brothers to Bugs Bunny to Adam Sandler, who poked fun at opera's high-minded seriousness and overblown singing. At the same time, the 20th century was filled with the kind of rabid opera fandom that turned sopranos and tenors into objects of feverish adoration, and turned the opera house where they sang into their temple, where the devoted came to worship.
Carmen the Mopera, currently playing at the Brick Theater as part of the NY Clown Festival, is stuck between these two worlds. The show, written by Julie Goell and directed by Avner Eisenberg, is uncertain whether it's a tribute to or a parody of Bizet's grand work—and so succeeds as neither.
The concept of the show is intriguing: it is a one-woman show of the opera Carmen by the French composer Georges Bizet, as performed by the janitor at the Royal Opera House. With this as the set-up, it seems as though we have a parody in the works. However, immediately upon entering, Goell's clown launches into telling (and singing) Carmen all by herself (with a collection of brooms and mops to help her out). She slowly moves about and hangs a makeshift curtain, and rolls out a paper towel carpet, all with a cheeky wink. It feels as though Goell's clown is putting on a fun show of Carmen for us. She's not making fun of anything in particular, it seems, she's just going through her routine that she thinks is a great performance, and only we can see the paper towel and the makeshift curtain. At no point in the show, however, does the artifice drop—or even crack—and Goell's clown's belief in the reality of her world is never strong enough to make us go with her there. Instead, we are left on the outside, watching and feeling a kind of pity for this old clown, as she goes through a performance we know is not great, but she thinks is wonderful. In fact, to my view, the show at times almost became a deeply tragic metaphor for the current perception of opera by the world at large, and the lack of acknowledgment of this by the people that love it: It's opera as a sort of ancient, graceless clown—bereft of sexuality, bereft of any connection to the outside world—left only with the external artifice of her art form to attempt to clumsily amuse the audience with. To her, this artifice is beautiful, but to us it's merely brooms and mops and brushes meant to wipe the rings off toilet bowls. A bleak picture, to say the least. I don't believe this is Goell and Eisenberg's intention, as they bill the show as a "zany romp" through the "sacred cows of opera," but it's what I couldn't help but think as I sat and watched it.
On the other hand, if Goell and Eisenberg's point is to pay tribute to the opera Carmen, or to perhaps present the opera with no frills to get people excited about it in a new way, here the piece falls short as well. Much of the piece is sung in the original French, without any translation. As someone who knows the opera I was able to follow along, but I'm not sure how accessible the show is to those who are experiencing it for the first time. More egregiously, the only representative of Bizet's powerful score is Goell's solo voice, and pantomime. In theory, it's possible that Goell's use of teapots and brooms and mops to portray all the characters in Carmen along with her mezzo-soprano could convey the thrilling passion and violent sexual energy in Carmen. But in its current form, it really doesn't. The voice is unsteady, the pantomime is half-hearted. This show has been touring around the world for some time, so it is possible I saw it on an off night, but, whether you're an opera lover or no, there's unfortunately very little to recommend about the current incarnation of Carmen the Mopera.