FWO Archives: A Conductor's Perspective on 'Carmen' from Maestro Joe Illick (2017 Festival)
Updated: Jun 13
My first encounter with Carmen was accidental. When I was ten, a friend and I got in trouble at school for collecting everyone’s leftover lunch, putting all the scraps into a large bag, hurling it into the air so that it splattered magnificently all over the playground to watch it immediately devoured by hundreds of seagulls. Our punishment was singing at the school assembly. My friend sang “America the Beautiful,” and out of nervousness, I improvised a high descant. The next thing I knew, the school music teacher sent me to audition for the San Francisco Boys Chorus. Rehearsals began that week, and we were singing in Carmen with the San Francisco Opera. This was my first encounter with opera of any kind, and it was so thrilling that my love affair with opera is still going strong.
The first time I ever conducted Carmen was for Greater Miami Opera in 1992. It was the company’s 50th anniversary season, and they pulled out all the stops with lavish Spanish sets and a great cast. Adria Firestone, one of the greatest Carmens of her generation, played the lead. In life she was genuinely kind to everyone she met, but on stage she transformed into a spitfire hellion who used sex to manipulate everyone in sight and would kill at the drop of a hat. The audience was so mesmerized by her confrontation with Don José in Act IV that when he pulled out his knife, many people gasped out loud.
Once I was conducting Adria in the title role in the Civic Theater in Shreveport. While she was working her way through the chorus men during the Habanera, a man from the audience cried out, “Forget about them! Come out here!”
This is the third time that I’ll conduct Carmen for Fort Worth Opera - we performed it in 2001 and in 2009. In 2001 the Don José was a former Navy SEAL and the Zuniga was a former Marine. With some guidance from our fight choreographer, the guys decided they would just engage in real combat on stage. We had a full minute of applause for a 15-second fight sequence.
Bizet loved to write for the stage, and Carmen was his twelfth opera. At the Paris premiere in 1875, the management of the Opéra-Comique was so scandalized by the piece that they actually urged people to stay away. The thirty-six-year-old Bizet died three months later and never witnessed the success of his masterpiece.
Is the opera Carmen relevant today? Carmen wants to be free above all else. She wants to be free of being tied to any man, and she wants to be free from the rules of society. But she is very aware that she is not free from Fate; she celebrates this ritualistically in the wonderful Card Trio. Fate is as inexorable today as it was in 1875, passion is as powerful, and jealousy still drives us to madness. Ultimately, we go to see Carmen because she lives every moment so fully right up to her final encounter. In love, in sex, in anger, in triumph, in defiance, in dancing, and of course, in singing, Carmen gives everything she has. Who could ask for more?
Bizet actually gives us much more! There’s the “Toreador Song,” sung first by the bullfighter Escamillo and then by everyone, and familiar around the world. There’s Don José’s “Flower Song,” one of the most beautiful declarations of love ever sung. There’s Micaela’s defiant “Nothing will make me afraid!” which she sings when she is absolutely terrified. There’s the Quintet sung by five scheming Gypsy smugglers, a stunning showpiece of vocal virtuosity, elegance, and humor all at once. And then there are another two dozen pieces, all of them melodious and memorable, carrying along a gripping story from start to finish. There is never too much Carmen!