An Interview with Audrey Babcock
by Ryan Scott Lathan, Manager of Marketing and Communications
Ryan Scott Lathan: In breaking with conventions of the era, the 1875 Paris premiere of Carmen elicited a rather scandalous response at the time, but has gone on to become one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. Why do you believe this tale has endured throughout the ages, and how is it relevant to modern, 21st century audiences?
Audrey Babcock: For the time, the piece was terribly alarming and a public relations nightmare. It was premiered in an opera house used to presenting light-hearted comedies and their clientele were primarily families. To display half-naked women (not to our standards mind you) smoking and singing "ethnic" dance music (at least in motif) filled with sexy semi-tones that inspired if not provoked a confrontation with sexuality, was more than the Victorian audience had prepared themselves for when they gathered their families and bought their tickets to the opera that day.
Looking at Carmen through its main dramatic themes, the work deals with issues regarding race and class, not just sexuality and women's issues. You have a woman breaking all social norms, with the double threat of her being of the 'other' - the exoticized vixen. The gypsies were - and still are – discriminated against, and at various times in history they have even been referred to as sub - human. Scenes from the news today are mirrored in Carmen - conflicts between the locals, "Gypsies," and police occur in more than one act. These scenarios hit a chord that audiences weren't ready to face at that time, but this is the same chord, if not stronger and louder, that we so clearly and vividly deal with today.
RSL: Over the years, you've performed Carmen with dozens of opera companies here in North America and overseas. From the moment you first stepped into this iconic role to your recent turns as the ultimate femme fatale, how has your interpretation of this character evolved?
AB: My interpretation of the role has had a personal trajectory for sure, but the journey has been uniquely guided by the hands of the productions I've had the honor to be a part of. My directors and colleagues ultimately inspire a great deal of the nuance in my performance. Especially dealing with social and sexual dynamics, I can't impose "my Carmen" on the production, we have to play together - it is something that evolves in the rehearsal room based on the individuals in play.
Until we get to the stage, the piece (my performance included) is the directors' clay. I'm often working with directors who involve me in their process and we collaborate, but ultimately my "Carmen" is who she is because of who's around her and how they react. It is ultimately theatre, and Grand Opera is about as far from a one woman show as you can get. It's part of the thrill.
RSL: From the original Carmencita, Célestine Galli-Marié, to Regina Resnik, Grace Bumbry, and Elina Garanea, Carmen has been embraced by countless mezzos and sopranos before you. What do you believe is the most important aspect of portraying the role?
AB: The most important aspect when portraying Carmen, in my opinion, is to find her within yourself. You can't parade around in her costume; she has to come from inside of you. It's not the kind of method acting that requires real tears for deceased loved ones in your actual life, but it is the earthiness, the groundedness, the confidence, the 'I don't care what people think,' that lies in the performer. Until then, you may sing like a goddess, but you are still searching for something. Carmen doesn't need your validation, in fact, she could give two hoots about what I'm saying right now.
RSL: Why do you think Bizet chose for his heroine to die at the end of the opera, and what does her death signify?
AB: In the original novella, Merimeé did a post mortem account of her death as almost a side note. Bizet, Meilhac, and Halvéy chose to have her die in front of the audience as the climax to the work - there is a lot to unpack right there in that choice, but I will answer the question at hand for now, which is why Bizet killed her.
A great deal has been written on this subject, and I am not alone when I say she dies because she is a woman who speaks her mind, and people have always found that both thrilling and terrifying. Susan McClary, a musicologist and professor at UCLA, reflects in her book, Feminine Endings that Carmen was conceived as a monster, and in all good monster movies, the monster dies.
She went against all social order - remember this was the Victorian era. Women wore long corsets back in those days. The boning could cover at least half of their hip, and go clear over the bust line; they could barely sit, let alone breathe. Women were passing out because the fashion of the day actually squelched their ability to breathe, work, or move about naturally in the world. (The period corsets we wear now in opera are much more forgiving than the original whalebone.)
On one hand, Carmen is a morality play. You act outside of what is socially acceptable and you will suffer the consequence. On the other hand, this character, by the mere nature of her being up on a stage for people to see, can be inspiration or encouragement for women. Not that they should live so hard they wind up dead, but to be courageous challenges what is expected, and the idea of our "place" in society. There are also people who believe she is a feminist role model. They either ignore the fact that she dies or they rely on the fact that many productions have Carmen kill herself in the final act. Putting herself in the path of the knife is her final act proving to José he is weak and lacks the ability to follow through with his own convictions and is incapable of doing anything for himself.
I believe she is a strong, theatrical, archetypal, character. What she stands for is a rich conversation to open. I think it is important to see women of conviction portrayed on the stage. I would challenge modern composers and librettists working in fiction to let more of them live.
"Sure she is an unsustainable archetype, un-replicable in human form, but parts of her are absolutely admirable. She’ll steal your watch, but she will tell you she is a thief first."
That being said, I also believe, getting back to her story, she is a Bruja, a Witch, a Gypsy. She sees her death in the cards and in her mind there is no way around it. She even sees that José is going to be the one who does it. Life, love, murder, fidelity, all these social "norms" don't have a place in this version of Gypsy society, so her "death" is just the next step for her. As to the way she dies, if she facilitates it is because she is impatient and fed up, and if he facilitates, he's just fulfilling his twisted duty to destiny.
She wouldn't think this story is tragic. Especially if she provokes her killing, her death becomes her last, final, and most spectacular, emasculating of José, and in a very twisted way- can unveil her true affection for him. If she didn't care, she wouldn't wait around to talk to him before her fancy new lover's Bull Fight. The fun part is that there is no answer, there are just so many great questions and things to ponder.
RSL: What is it about this fearless gypsy woman that has seduced artists and opera lovers for over 140 years?
AB: There are many reasons she is a beloved character, but why she has lasted, and why she is appealing to so many, I believe, is because she holds confidence so deep inside herself, it is unwavering. She doesn't care what others think of her and she is honest about who she is to her dying breath. Many people strive for these traits their whole lives and barely come close. Sure she is an unsustainable archetype and un -replicable in human form, but parts of her are absolutely admirable. She'll steal your watch, but she will tell you she is a thief first.
RSL: You bring such a distinct interpretation of Carmen to life. What facets of her personality resonate with you as an artist, a musician and as a woman?
AB: She's got a dry and dark sense of humor. One of the mistakes early in my Carmen's life was to take her too seriously. Why do that? She doesn't! It's not that life is easy breezy - her life is HARD - but what is she going to do about any of it? Just live in the moment and keep walking through the day. She is a survivor. She is self-sustaining. She has a community, but she can both thrive within and without. She is actually quite balanced in a strange way - stubborn for sure, but balanced. When things get crazy, she is the one to keep her head. That's the light -hearted answer.
The deeper answer is that Carmen is everything to me. I was 22 when I first performed the role; l was the understudy and I got one performance with very little rehearsal. I was terrified. Until then I had always played old ladies or goof balls on stage. I grew up in theatre and when there were no boys in my drama class, I even played Fagin in a full production of Oliver! (There is a picture in an album somewhere in my mothers' house).
I was a girl and then a woman of the modern age, being told by TV and movies what beautiful was, what being feminine was, and Cosmo-Teen was telling myself and all of my friends (even if we were too punk rock to read it) what the opposite sex was interested in.
The idea that you should re-package yourself somehow for private or public consumption based on your perceived audience - for work, or just for life, was (still is?) rampant. I went to conservatory, where you are told what music is, what tradition is, how arias should be sung, correct performance practice, the "Golden Age of Opera", etc. etc. etc. And then there I was, thrown into a costume and told to be sexy while being stared at by a bunch of men with their arms crossed. What does that even mean?! I had to reach deep inside myself to find my grounding, my true "self", and slowly, over time she grew and so did I right along with her. At somewhere around 30 productions of this piece so far, I still reach through the earth beneath my feet every time I walk on the stage as the most epic femme fatale in operatic history. It is a truly humbling honor.