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Passion, Poetry, and Opera

Updated: Jan 11, 2019





I want to do with you

what the Spring does

with the cherry tree.

—Neruda


Peace and joy, Camper, and welcome once again to Your Uncle Jerry’s Opera Corner.


These days, more and more young people, when faced with the painful disappointments and desires of romance, are turning to the opera. Understandable. Opera is no rom-com; it is both transporting and tragic, and nothing satisfies the youthful soul so painfully.


Still, one must keep a critical distance on these matters, young man. A tenor in love is almost never your best role model. Especially in Carmen, the world’s most popular opera. Let’s have a look at Don José—Carmen’s true love.


In case you missed this, Camper, José’s backstory is gruesome. Although a tenor, he used to be a bit of a brigand, plus he actually killed a man who stole his woman. True, true, there is an upside to crimes of passion: they sell video games, for example. Also, women love a man with passion, a man with a past. On the other hand, passion started José’s trouble before, and it will soon get him in trouble with Carmen—and I don’t mean the good kind, heh heh.


Uncle Jerry’s father (Grandpa Jerry) never gave him any good advice about love, aside from “Well, you don’t have a driver’s license, bro. Why wouldn’t she dump you?” For this reason and many others, Uncle Jerry still visits the nice doctor in her very quiet office. Every two weeks.


What you need to know is that within the heart of the woman you love is a Carmen; coquettish and demanding and clueless, and, most of all, independent. There are two things that will totally drive her away. One is an obsession to control her. The other is submitting entirely—letting her control you. Both of these are the natural offspring of passion, and José has passion in spades.


But, see, passion by itself is destructive to a relationship and time-consuming. A life of passion alone is a marathon of anguish at the Hotel California Roller Coaster. Don’t take that ride, Camper. Why? Because brush up on your 1970s pop music.


Dear old Don José, like so many tenors, is passionate but dim. When he shows up in the last act to get Carmen back, he both pleads and threatens: “Pleeease, I’ll do anything,” and “Love me or I will stab you.” And does this work? “Boooring. Kill me, please, so your endless raving will stop.” Dim, unfortunately, is dangerous, and—spoiler alert—he kills her.


What José is missing is poetry.


Of course, poetry--poetry alone--is a debit card with insufficient funds. But passion without poetry is a kiss without a moustache.


Pay attention. The point is, you need both.


José’s definition of poetry is too narrow, and so is yours, Camper. You may not have noticed, because your head is up your own interior life, but a woman likes to be surprised by her man. And I don’t mean showing up with flowers and your red leather thong; don’t be so predictable. Let’s say you ask her a serious question—one that isn’t about you. Let’s say you do this more than once. You express an interest in her life, her dreams, her music, or maybe one of her friends. No: scratch that last one.


But listen: The occasional surprise means she won’t feel she can predict you. That’s good.


Because (and here's where your thinking has been too narrow) surprise is poetry to her, even when it comes from a doof like you.


What's better, it’s a form of resistance. And there, my friend, is the irony of love in life and in opera. Lovers find resistance fascinating. Why? Because love needs a little friction to keep it warm.


What makes Carmen go cold is a man who can’t stop adoring her for one minute, who jumps at her command. Loses himself. This creeps her out. A more sensible Don José would marry the girl his mother picked out, and would quietly take a series of wonderful lovers, perhaps including Carmen. (Oh please. It’s Europe.) That is keeping poetry and passion in proper balance.


Are you with me? The tenor may be a wonderful singer, but the one you want to watch is the baritone—the matador. Flirtatious yet aloof, bold yet gallant. Full of passion yet quick with a poem. Love is an elegant gamble; the baritone knows that going in. Yes, he may lose the girl, but the point is this: He never loses himself. For Carmen, that’s the real turn on.


Joy and peace.

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