Carmen’s Mother’s Day Lessons

Ginger Costa Jackson as Carmen at Seattle Opera.

Much talk, time and money are dedicated these days to the topic of how to excite the younger generation about classical music. In my teens, which began some four decades ago on Bainbridge Island off of Seattle, I frequented operas and organ recitals, as well as other musical offerings in the big city across the Puget Sound. Back then, I was often the youngest person at any given performance. The funny—not to say worrying—thing is, I still often am.

A big part of the problem is that high culture generally means high prices, though in Washington—proudly the first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana—“high culture” more likely means something quite different these days. Lateral thinking is called for. Following the lead of the princes and aristocrats of yore, who boozed and smoked in their opera houses and castle music rooms, why not put on a Verdi Vape-In? Getting lit up for the auto-da-fé in Don Carlossounds like a pleasant way to get through old Giuseppe V’s longest opera, while possibly filling the seats with a different, perhaps younger, clientele.

But there’s still the problem of the price tag.

Seattle Opera’s Mothers’ Day strategy took a different slant: even if it’s a sunny day, soak the parents but let the kids in for a song.  My sister footed the bill for mom, one of her siblings (me) and kids: she shelled out $250 for each for the adults, but a scant $10 for each of her four children. (I had bought a cheap seat up in the rafters, but my other sister cancelled at the last minute and I was upgraded). Our seats were eight rows back from the stage: ideal for sight and sound, though necks young and old had to be craned to take in the supertitles a few stories overhead.

My sister’s progeny—ranging in age from eleven to nineteen—put on their good clothes and joined in gamely. It was their first trip to the opera, my fifty-year-old sister’s, too. My brother-in-law was also along, but, a lawyer, he kept quiet about his opera-going record. Even the eleven-year-old has only a few inches to go to pass six feet: big and blond, our look was button-down Wagnerian rather than sultry southern like the denizens of Carmen-land—Spaniards who just happen to sing in French.

Called the Seattle Opera House during my above-mentioned youth, the building opened during the 1962 World’s Fair. The building’s functionalist bones are still discernible in spite of the early millennial makeover funded by a billionaire named Craig McCaw and his brothers. Birthplace of Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks and Costco (that is, of the modern world), Seattle is a showcase for ostentatious philanthropy. The McCaw boys had the place named in honor of their mother.  At 20 millions bucks that sprucing-up was quite a gift and also made it a fitting site for our Mother’s Day outing.

The McCaw makeover endowed the old place with a grand staircase curving up through a soaring glass-encased foyer with its postmodern chandelier made up of bits and bobs—ladders, extension cords, tape measures and all sorts of other found objects and Home Depot detritus. The sculpture-in-the-sky is exuberantly analog, anarchic and archaic: a fond folly recalling the pre-digital age that built modern Seattle and transformed its opera house.

From the exterior the building sings out for street-view attention with geometrically irregular steel cladding, showy backlit sheets of glass, and a cantilevered corner that might offer pedestrians protection from the frequent Seattle rains, the legions of homeless not included. The auditorium’s interior hushes entering ticket holders in tones of luminous red, green, and purplish pink. Aside from the modern amenities of better bathrooms, bars and gift shop, color and light are the biggest changes.

Returning home is always an exercise in nostalgia. Behind all the apparently tasteful glitz that only money can buy, I still see the more sober, rectilinear space where my younger self soldiered through Nibelungen sagas and less protracted epics. One can already imagine, even predict, a future re-rebuild that restores the house to its mid-century modern glory.

In the intermissions I scanned the foyer and hall for other families. I didn’t see many, though the next-gen numbers seemed to increase in the higher altitudes of the auditorium.

The opera for this Mother’s Day matinee was Bizet’s Carmen, by some measures an oddly appropriate—or blatantly inappropriate—entertainment for the occasion, since the unhappiest character in the whole opera is the unseen mother of tenor Don José (the brilliantly ardent and self-pitying Scott Quinn). Little Donnie is a big disappointment to mom, as we learn in act one from his fiancée, the Village Maiden, Micäela (the affecting Vannessa Goikoetexea). She comes to visit  her beau and cajole him into family-man mode. But Don J isn’t in the mood: he snubs Micäela, neglects his doting mum, whores around, thinks and sings only of himself. He makes a perfunctory off-stage deathbed visit to his mother, not out of filial devotion but in order to get himself temporarily out of the way so that Carmen (the excellently named dramatic and musical powerhouse, Ginger Costa-Jackson) and the Toreador (done by the agile-voiced Muscovite Rodion Pogossov as two parts Fonzie, one part Brando whether on his Harley or holding a big chrome microphone) can sing their duet without his pesky moping and menacing knife-play.

As in so much of opera, the example is a negative one from which all ages can, and probably should, benefit. In this case the lessons are provided demonstratively by kid-less Carmen and eternal baby-boy Don José. Plus they smoke. There’s lots of on-stage, odorless vaping in this production set in a vaguely rock ‘n roll fascist Spain. All you cheap-ticket kids: don’t grow up to be like this dysfunctional duo—she dynamic, he dismal, both doomed.

But there are other morals—and immorals—strutting and lurking around Bizet’s opera. The long-term effect of these on the wee’uns might be harder to judge and to channel. Carmen controls her sexuality, wields it, enjoys it—and is killed for it. Her music is chromatic, sultry: it calls from the wrong side of the border wall.

Her characterization and treatment by her male inventors (Bizet and his librettists) has come under attack over the last few decades, long before the fall of Harvey Weinstein. But the popularity of the opera’s tunes shields it from ban or bowdlerization. Stage director Paul Curran’s realization tries to skirt (of course, the one Carmen wore was bright red and tear-away) these issues by moving the events forward in time but still before the feminist movement. Don José’s added suicide (not in the original) doesn’t solve the problem or in any way redeem the piece’s woman-hating core. Instead this amendment only makes it worse: easy justice is just the final form of male self-indulgence.

That Craig McCaw made his money in cellphones might explain the lack of any reminder before the curtain rose to silence all devices. As if on cue, a ring tone chimed in with the girl group trio near the beginning of the third act. Having just told Don J to get lost yet again, our ill-fated heroine joins with her girlfriends in the outlaw band as they pass the time telling their own fortunes. Carmen’s cards keep coming up as death, but the portentousness of the scene was punctured by that grating electronic melody just a few rows behind us.

Near the outset of this shabby little shocker, when one of the soldiers makes a crack about the female laborers in the cigarette factory, the supertitle referring to all those “loose women” elicited rolling laughter from the audience. Perhaps there needs to be a patch not for nicotine but misogynistic cracks.

The tunes were what kept the kids interested. They recognized lots of Bizet’s hits. When Costa-Jackson started into her smoldering performance of the Habanera, done partly in Basic Instinct interrogation scene posture, my eldest nephew whispered to one of his brothers: “They’re doing this one already?”  They knew more than three hours of opera lay ahead, and perhaps thought it would all be downhill from there on out.

That nephew is a freshman at the University of Washington and was suffering from a bad case of love sickness. This opera was perhaps not the best medicine. Carmen instructs her on-stage male ogglers in the torments of the disease: “You think you have love. You don’t. You think you escaped love. You haven’t.” She begins her most famous song by likening love to a “rebellious bird.” She ends it with a mocking, fatalistic paradox: “If you don’t love me, I love you; if I love you, look out for yourself!”

The youngest nephew hummed along. At the intermission, his brother checked his cell phone. Perhaps there was a message from her.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at