Strangled Carmen

Bizet’s music is transcendent. Once you have seen and heard Carmen, you can never forget it. It gets under your skin, haunting with the resonance of emotion. Music that hurts the soul with its purity and passion.

We went to see Bizet’s Carmen, staged by the Penang Arts Council in association with Texchem, on Friday night. Carmen is the story of the Gypsy woman, who seduces Don Jose, a guardsman, and plays him off against Escamillo, a toreador. Though Micaela, Don Jose’s betrothed, offers a pure counterpoint, he cannot get Carmen out of his blood, and eventually, tragically, murders her for her rejection.

We made our way to Istana Budaya, humming Toreador, keenly excited, like the feeling you get when a huge orchestra tunes their instruments before a torrent of music bursts forth…

This was definitely going to be a night to remember… It was shit.

Within two minutes of the first entrance, we looked at each other in both horror and disbelief.

Pia: I started giggling in embarrassment – for the cast, for Malaysian opera, for the audience. This beautiful music, the exquisite melodies, so painfully performed, so horribly thrashed.

Simon: I thought, if this is the sign of things to come, we are in for a gruelling couple of hours of opera, something that I never have associated with Carmen. My sympathy went to the audience, for everyone had come dressed, lively and excited. They had spent good money (the most expensive tickets were RM250) on a production that was at best substandard.

Pia & Simon: We moved from place to place in the theatre, trying to find a physical angle from which it would feel better. We consoled ourselves with chocolate and sweets, bought during intermission when we fortified ourselves with teh tarik (this being Malaysia, no champagne was available).

Pia: I was introduced to opera by my teacher, Mr. Keegan, who sang Mimi’s dying aria from La Traviata to an enthralled class of eight year olds. I became so passionate, I begged my parents to come see opera with me. I remember going to Wolftrap and the Kennedy Centre, dressed up, thrilled with it all, and being transported into music, sound and emotion. One of my favourite memories of my father: sitting with him, listening to the great Maria Callas, his long slender fingers conducting the music.

Simon: In London, during the Opera season, going on warm summer nights to see the English National Opera at their home in Saint Martin’s Lane or the Royal Opera House. The excitement, the bright lights, the buzz of Covent Garden. The operas were seamless – from the stage door keeper to the lead soprano. This time of year, cold dark nights, South Bank, Nutcracker. Thick coats, taxi’s winging our way to the theatre, breath coming out in smoky plumes, the feeling of a by-gone era. Sharing the enjoyment of it all, anticipation on everyone’s faces, enjoying the beautiful clothes of the audience, ordering champagne for intermission. Opera is an event.

Pia & Simon: We don’t want to subject you to each moment we had to endure. Instead, we will give you our highlights – the good, the bad, and the oh so ugly. An indication: by the end of the first act, a number of people had walked out, never to be seen again.

Simon: I was amazed to see latecomers ushered to their seats – this is opera. In the context of this production, this level of unprofessionalism was par for the course. The house was barely 20% full (the PR says that it is actually 40% – ed.): may be the missing 80% had been tipped off, and were engaging themselves watching planks of wood warp paint dry.

An announcement was made that the translations would not be appearing due to technical difficulties. That coupled with a seat being replaced by a technician as the audience sat down, were merely forerunners of worse to come. At the beginning of the third act, a drill could be heard backstage fixing something.

Pia: The first thing I thought was, the staging is SO clumsy. The chorus moved en masse like lemmings. They never seemed to have been given encouragement to attempt to act. They simply stood around, like planks of wood, waiting to burst into song.

Simon: The stage design was a disgrace. Istana Budaya is a difficult theatre with many angles. Throughout the opera, we could see, through various entrances and exits, stage lights, stage hands, performers, and assorted backstage personnel milling about.

Pia: The opera was sung in its original French, but the spoken lines were in mangled English. Such juxtaposition did not work, and I did not understand why that choice was made. It took away from the seamlessness of the narrative.

Simon: And during the spoken word, there was no subtextual music. Opera is a constant flood of music, even when people are talking to one another. The choice to take away the music during the spoken intervals made the opera seem choppy and disjointed. Was this a directorial choice? Or was there a lack of musical arrangement?

Pia: There was a singular lack of emotional connection between the two leads. Carmen (Jessica Hsing-An Shen) could not sing and move at the same time. This was a result of an obvious lack of good direction. Her only seductive move was to hold her skirts and swing them back and forth. Her voice was lovely though not incredibly powerful, and she managed a passable ‘L’amour est un Oiseau’. She had problems when Don Jose came upon the scene and she had to try to interact with him. The seduction scene at the end of Act One, a classic if ever there was one, tanked completely. Carmen barely looked at Don Jose, and he was as stiff as a dead soldier.

Simon: What can I say about Don Jose (Justin Lavender)? A difficult character to play – a man in the true sense of the word, torn between his loyalties and his passions, expressed in an artistic scenario that only a man who understands his male-ness can perform…  So what was this I saw before me? “Whether it be nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and never get a lead role in a major opera house in the west again, or whether I spend my latter years, fading abysmally in the elephant’s graveyard that is Penang Arts Council opera.”

My eighty-two year old father could sing better then that with his eyes closed. And we are Welsh, so we know a thing or two about song. And the geckos fighting for territory along the wall express more emotion and fervour then I saw from Justin.

Please, in the future, Justin, choose the noble path. Suffer those slings and arrows. And if you do ever appear on stage again in Malaysia, try and remember your lines.

Pia: Yes, Justin, you forgot them a couple of times, and yes, we did notice.

Micaela (Cecilia Yap) was the shining light, the saving grace, the thankfulness of the evening. She had stage presence, she expressed emotions, and her voice, it soared. It captured the essence of the music, and it transported us, for a brief moment, into the possibilities of what could have been. Cecilia, you were harmony against such dissonance.

Micaela is a complicated role to play – against the dark sensuous passion of Carmen, she characterises purity, which can seem a little boring. Cecilia brought humanity to Micaela, and her professionalism extended to singing against Don Jose’s enthusiastic but dishonest voice. In the third act, singing for Don Jose, lost in the wilderness, Cecilia commanded the stage alone, and I was thankful for this respite. The director chose this moment to have Don Jose stumble on stage for no good reason, and blunder off again.

Cecilia Yap gave us a reason to be there, and to stay, and to listen. She did Bizet proud. She did us proud. Her voice was clarity and sweetness, sorrow and loss.

Simon: When announcing the ten minute intermission after Act One, we were requested not to leave our seats. None of the audience members took this advice, as we were aching to get out, take a deep breath, have a smoke and decide if we really wanted to go back in.

Pia: I convinced Simon to go back because Toreador was next, and surely, surely, that couldn’t be so bad!

Simon: Surely was not singing, unfortunately. Stephen Owen was.

It’s difficult to express the passion and raw emotion that one feels hearing Toreador performed live on stage in front of a full orchestra. It’s simply spine tingling. Hairs stand in places where hair shouldn’t grow. It’s such an emotional piece of music that the best way I can describe it is by explaining my physical response to it.

I had my head in my hands.

No spine tingling. No hairs stood on end. The tears in my eyes were for all the wrong reasons. No more to be said.

Pia: The quality of the two male leads was exemplified in their duet together – pure pantomime.

Simon: I was thankful not only for Micaela’s sterling performance, but also for the performances of Frasquita (Kho Mei Ling) and Mercedes (Sharmila Danel). Thank you ladies, for your supporting roles. They were small but much appreciated rays of sunshine. I look forward to hearing you in the future, in larger roles. Not only did you sing, but you acted as well. Either the dire or focused all his attention on just the two of you, which left him bereft of time for anyone else, or you took it upon yourselves to “play” the roles. Either way, it worked.

Pia: The quintet in Act Two was saved by the coquettish charm of Frasquita and Mercedes. And in Act Three, when the director had them singing their duet while sitting down, so they could not breathe, and their voices were blocked, Mei Ling and Sharmila still managed emotional, persuasive performances.

None of the other principles marked themselves for particular comment – except the Innkeeper (Mark Beau de Silva), who I loved because he was an unintentional, sweetly humourous counterpoint to the dour Inn scenes.

Simon: Another welcome point of diversity occurred when we encountered the dancers (Nicolas van Heems, Emily Teoh Yin Ping, Jaime Ooi Li-Ming and Tan Siew Pheng). They were welcome relief. The dancers conveyed the ardour of the Spanish gypsy. Unfortunately, there was a distinct lack of choreography, as the same movements were repeated again and again, and their stamping, whilst vital to the dance form, obscured the music.

During the Act Two interval, I mentioned to Pia that I had overheard an elderly Chinese gentleman remark on the obscurity of hearing French sung in Chinese accents. At first I thought this a bit harsh and the company should be given the benefit of the doubt, but having heard Pavarotti and Callas, as well as the Glyndebourne Chorus, all singing in French, not their native tongue, I tend to agree with my friend.

Pia: A few comments about the lighting and stage design. Mac Chan – who I regard as a great lighting designer – what happened here? I have only seen him light small intimate productions, and I am not sure whether he was hindered by the dire stage direction, or he did not have enough time to do a thorough job, or if the Istana Budaya stage does not suit theatre lighting. This was not a Mac Chan special – the lighting was indifferent at times, and obscure at others. He was not helped by the horrible stage design by Beatrice Schultz. The set hindered the performance. Ugly, uninspired, clumsy, and totally uninteresting. The highlight was the huge bull, which appeared for a while in Act One, probably because the stage crew had forgotten to pull it up into the rafters. I thought it was foreshadowing, Simon thought it was just shoddy.

Simon: I really don’t want to put you through any more pain. If this review is boring, tedious and lifeless, it’s reflecting what we saw on stage. Acts Three and Four brought us more of the same, including a comic fight scene between the two male leads, more sheepherding trials from the rent-a-crowd chorus, live gun sound effect, well enacted by the propsman onstage firing blanks, and a finale that was a bigger anti-climax then the presidential elections in the US. The game of tag between Carmen and Don Jose in the murder scene was sublimely ridiculous. This ending could be marked for the first time either of us has ever seen Carmen strangled on stage!

Pia: Congratulations to Robert Casteels (the Conductor) and the National Symphony Orchestra. You did an extraordinary job, and managed, if we closed our eyes and tried to cut out most of the voices, to pay homage to the beauty of Bizet’s music. Thank you for a job that must have been difficult. Your music was beautiful.

Simon: The final part was a perfect, timely and well executed piece of theatre. Congratulations to the person who dropped the curtain on this production. If only I could have bribed him/her not to raise it again for a curtain call. I applauded those that deserved applauding, and it gave me an opportunity to express what I felt when the director finally emerged so I could BOO him as loudly as I possibly could.

Pia: This shocked the women sitting in front of us, until they started laughing in commiseration.

Alain Wullschleger has produced five other productions for the Penang Arts Council. I imagine this is the first production he has ever directed, and I hope that it will be his last. Most of the issues we had with this production – from its lack of staging to choice of performers, awful production set to unbearably stilted acting – stem from the pompous directing style. I hope that part of the learning process will be to not allow Alain Wullschleger to direct another opera for the Penang Arts Council.

Simon: Thank you Penang Arts Council for stirring up such emotions in me that I felt the need to actually boo the director whose name I cannot even be bothered to mention.

If there is a lesson to be learned by Penang Arts Council, it’s do not bite off more than you can chew. And when you put in an amateur director, and an amateur performance, do not expect people to pay top dollar for it. Quite frankly, its rude.

Pia: One of the most important parts of going to see the performing arts in Malaysia is to support a burgeoning and thriving arts community. Kudos to the Penang Arts Council and Texchem for attempting to introduce Malaysian audiences to opera. We need to push ourselves and create professional performances with artistic merit. It’s a shame the quality did not match up to the intent.


Pia Zain is one of the founders of Dramalab. Simon Hegarty is her business partner.

First Published: 22.12.2004 on Kakiseni

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