Carmen Get It! The PC Opera

carmenThere was good news for WA Opera lovers recently. A generous grant from the WA Health Promotion Foundation will enable the company to stage Georges Bizet’s lost 1875 work, La Fumador Compulsiva (La Fuma).  A cautionary tale about how a bewitching Spanish gypsy’s addiction to the wicked weed led to more than smoker’s cough, this opéra comique is sure to be a big hit next year — especially with medical professionals and public-health bureaucrats.

Carolyn Chard, WAO’s General Manager, said the decision to proceed was made only after it secured a two-year deal with Healthway.  Operating under the Tobacco Control Act 2006, it funds local arts and community group promotion of health messages. “La Fuma is actually set in a tobacco factory, so it is an ideal work for a body in the business of promoting non-smoking and healthy work environments,” said Ms Chard.

“We were very respectful of the partnership and forward-thinking, recognising this opera would sit perfectly with the aims of Healthway. Sponsorship is so vitally important to arts companies. This is significant support and you need to deliver benefits.”

Ms Chard was right on the money. Set in southern Spain in 1820, La Fuma’s central character, Carmen, works as a cigarrera. Not in any old tobacco factory, but in Seville’s Royal Tobacco Factory (Real Fábrica de Tabacos).  Now part of the city’s university, it was built in the mid-eighteenth century to manufacture cigars and snuff stuff from leaves grown in Virginia and New Spain.

With the chance rediscovery of this piece, musical scholars now suggest Bizet was a closet campaigner against the evils of smoking, unlike other Parisian artists of his day.

As for the La Fuma libretto – written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy – they conclude it was inspired by the same progressive forces pushing society to embrace smoke-free lifestyles and workplaces today, while providing generous child-care and discouraging unhealthy romantic yearnings, tackling domestic violence, substance abuse, gender stereotyping, machismo mania, animal cruelty (bull-fighting, etc) and so on.

Healthways must have been ecstatic when it heard the Chorus of Cigar Girls – ‘nous suivons la fumée’ – in Act I Scene IV:

We raise our eyes to the skies
And lightly smoke.
As upwards in perfumed clouds it flies,
On we smoke –
Pleasant smoke,
Fragrant smoke,
Cheering smoke,
It mounts so gently, lightly:
To the brain.
Soothes the soul that’s weary
To bliss from pain.

We turn our eyes from the skies –
All is smoke.
Words of love, how oft they prove
Nought but smoke.
Warmest sighs, fondest ties,
All end in – smoke.

For here the audience gets a glimpse of – not only the transience of each cigarillo-experience and silly sigh – but also the existential cancer that gnaws at every smoker’s soul – and other vital organs.

It is, however, La Fuma’s plot that is surely the greatest deterrent to taking up the habit.

In Act I Scene IX, we see how addiction can affect one’s promotional and employment prospects. Carmen wounds a female health and safety official attempting to prevent her smoking on the job, setting in motion a nasty chain of events. Arrested and taken to prison, she seduces Don José, a corporal in the dragoons. He arranges her escape, but there is a problem.

This new love, he loves me well.
More lovers have I than I can count;
None in bonds can retain me –
But the wicked weed.

One thing leads to another. Before the audience can say ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’, Carmen becomes mixed up with a bunch of gypsy cigarro-smugglers and a toreador, Escamillo.

Meanwhile, Don José, upset he has to compete with a wicked weed for Carmen’s affections, frets outside a factory-sponsored bullfight held to promote a new brand, Bovine Blues. In the final act, he sees her singing to the crowd:

“Who’ll buy? Who’ll buy?
A little fag I’ll sell you cheap;
Or cigarro Monte-cristo.
Who’ll buy? Who’ll buy?

Overcome with jealous rage, he terminates her addiction – but in an unlawful manner.

La Fuma is just the kind of wake-up call the smoking public needs at this point in the nation’s journey towards perfectibility of manners and mores. Healthways deserves our gratitude for sponsoring it as part of Quit Now!

A European tour with the new production is rumoured to be under consideration, with the one city ‘where smoking is still fun’ at the top of WAO’s list.

Dear reader, I confess, this too is a cautionary tale. Folk who stray into the tricky realm of love and death that is opera without an aesthetic compass can lose more than their way – as alas did Carmen, the feisty fumeur, and many of the genre’s other characters.

Michael Kile, October 2014

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