Image: Emma Pearson, left, in Carmen / Marty Melville
Can opera be political? If you ask Emma Pearson, the answer is yes.
Pearson is one of the stars of Carmen, debuting in Auckland this coming Thursday in a production by New Zealand Opera. One of the world’s most famous operas, Carmen is the story of a man who is seduced by a woman named Carmen. At least, that’s one way to interpret the events that take place. It’s also a story of just how tough life was for women in the Victorian era – and shines an uncomfortable light on how little things have changed.
Villainesse recently caught up with Pearson. Here’s what she had to say.
What can you tell us about your role in Carmen?
I’m singing the role of Micaëla. She is betrothed to the main character, Don José, but is kicked to the curb once José meets and becomes obsessed with Carmen. At the beginning of the opera Micaëla brings a letter to Don José from his mother, saying she has forgiven him and wants him to return home and marry Micaëla. In our production, we play the betrothed pair as though they care a lot about each other, but neither are truly in love.
My character doesn’t actually exist in the original novella by Prosper Merimée. She was added when the composer (Bizet) was forced to tone down the controversial story for family audiences. He added Micaëla to offset Carmen, describing her as a very innocent, chaste young girl. In our production, we have fleshed out Micaëla’s usual 2D character. By Act III she is wild and desperate, and determined to drag José back to his mother, any way she can!
What do you see as the differences between Micaëla and Carmen in the storyline?
Carmen lives to please herself and Micaëla lives to serve others. But the main difference is Carmen cannot be tamed. Micaëla only wants to live by the rules dictated to her by the Bourgeoisie. Carmen, the Bohemian, can survive in the darkest corners of the earth. She controls the men around her with self-confidence and sexuality. Micaëla is too sentimental and modest, and therefore loses Don José and is unable to defend herself when she is threatened by men in Carmen’s world.
What do you think the characters of Micaëla and Carmen, and how they're depicted, say about women?
This opera certainly describes how powerless women were in the Victorian era. The opera and novella are written by men, so we see slightly over-simplified characters serving the journey of Don José. Carmen is usually the ultimate male fantasy, Micaëla the one they could take home to meet their mother. Micaëla´s music often sounds like Bizet imagined her – skipping lightly on her feet in unnatural ways. Carmen’s theme is an earthy, thumping heart-beat throughout the opera. BUT! In the 1990s, our director, Lindy Hume, turned the opera on its head and made this particular production speak for 20th and now 21st century women as well. She has also removed all the clichés.
What about the “good man led astray” trope? Do you think it has resonance today?
Watching a character wrestle between what they want to do, and what they actually ought to do, is pretty interesting to modern audiences. But we don’t believe it when a woman is singularly responsible for turning a man into a monster. I think it is clear in this production, at least, that José was never a good man. The opera begins with him serving time in the army for whatever crime he’s committed, and we try to show that he has a very short temper and a violent streak from the beginning.
How do you feel about the opera’s depictions of violence against women?
It is always shown as a despicable act. Lindy uses chorus reactions to make her point of view clearly understood.
Is society different now than it was when Carmen is set?
On the surface the 19th century and the 21st have nothing in common, but they were both times of revolution (industry and technology) with all the pros and cons of those times – and we are slowly seeing again the same divides between the super-rich and the rest of the world.
Can opera be empowering?
Watching opera is inspiring. It puts the powerful, non-amplified voice of a human in the spotlight. We sometimes forget how great our potential is now that most of the entertainment we like to watch uses technology and microphones. And singing opera is empowering – it is one of the few professions where female singers can earn higher salaries than their male colleagues. Since the Baroque period, right up until the end of the recording industry in the early 21st century, singers and instrumentalists have used their musical talent as a vehicle to break out of poverty and their class.
When you die on stage and hear gasps in the audience, you know you’ve helped someone forget about their own problems for a few hours, immersing them in someone else’s conflicts and resolutions. It’s escapism that can help society a lot more than another pair of shoes on Instagram.
What does the word “feminism” mean to you?
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
I still come across conversations where gender is assigned to specific personality traits – and therefore roles in society – and I have to defend myself and my life choices. So yes, I think I might be a feminist. I’ve always felt compelled to earn my own living. I think high heels were invented to tire women out and make them weaker than men. I am tired of seeing photos on the red carpet where a group of men in suits surround one woman in the middle, selling her figure. I think men should show as much flesh as women do on the red carpet!
What do you see as the biggest hurdles in achieving equality today?
We feel guilty and pull out of the workplace when we have children, so the workforce remains a man’s world. We need to socially support men who stay at home with their children. There is still a stigma around this. Take turns being the centre of focus with your partner. Be proud of grey hair and wrinkles, and don’t shy away from or airbrush your features once you have them. We need you to be heard and seen in the media.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?
Pay your student fees upfront. Be kinder to your mother. Ask for help. Go to Heath Ledger’s birthday party when he invites you. Start yoga now while you can still bend.
What advice do you have for young women thinking of a career in opera?
Do it! Then conduct it, direct it, and please compose one if you know how to score music. Lean in! Take the reins. Let our stories be heard.
Carmen will be performed at Auckland’s Aotea Centre on June 22, June 24, June 27, June 29 and July 1. It will then be performed in Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal on July 13, 15, 18, 20 and 22. Tickets are available here.