The full title is L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (“Love’s a rebel bird”), a big soprano aria from Carmen, written by Georges Bizet in 1875. That’s right, an opera! We’re into scary territory here, at risk of chasing away followers of this quixotic New Year’s Resolution. But bear with me, it’s quite a song.
No, I’m not really an opera fan. It has problems: pretentiousness, a lot of the music is lame, it encourages a hard vibrato-heavy voice that usually repels me, the male singers bellow, and they care way too much about the costumes. But, I go see them sometimes; Lauren and I subscribed to the Vancouver Opera for a few years, and really enjoyed it. First of all, those vocal styles sound way better unamplified in a big space than they do on your radio speakers. And fact, on those remaining occasions when opera is performed completely without any amplification help, it’s a rare experience — music at a huge scale with no electricity involved. The construction of the sound is done in real time by a hundred performers, powered only by talent and a whole lot of practice; no mixing board!. No home stereo you’ve ever heard can come close to what live opera sounds like.
And the whole costumes-and-pearls thing is just part of opera being big; it’s presented on a big stage with a big orchestra and big chorus and big stars singing big songs. There’s nothing small about it, and once again, when you’re actually in the audience looking at them, the elaborate costumes and sets and so on make perfect sense.
That’s if the music is good. Of those I saw as a subscriber, at least a third were tuneless trash, another bunch were OK, and then there were one or two that were so intense and beautiful they left me dazed for days. Also, I confess to having cried like a baby in a tragic part of La bohème.
Anyhow, now that we’re past the lengthy apologetic prelude, let’s get to the song. Bear in mind that in its heyday when the famous operas were being written, this was pop music. Your show got to run a long time and make you real money if it had songs that got the toes tappin’ and went through people’s minds while they were walking to work. Most operas, if they’re lucky have one. Carmen has two, Habanera and the Toreador Song. If you go see Carmen, I guarantee you’ll find one of ’em playing in your head while you brush your teeth the next morning. Despite that, the opera had a rough launch because it was way too gritty and realistic.
I picked the Habanera because, along with having one of the catchiest tunes ever written it gives the soprano the most scope to max out the drama and fun and sex; this is the joyful part of the story before it turns all dark and deathly. It’s worth noting that Carmen is a heroine for our times; sex-positive and strong. Then she gets murdered by a jealous asshole. Which is also highly relevant in 2018.
To be honest I basically never listen to opera recordings, except for sometimes I’ll tune into the NY Met show on Saturdays, and if something really juicy is playing I’ll roll down the windows and max out the volume, just to create an atmosphere on the street and savor the pedestrians’ eye-rolls.
But, here are three live video performances; since the song is under five minutes, you ought to sample one or two and see if your mind gets expanded.
Let’s award prizes! First, best acting and use of a cigar: Anne Sofie von Otter. Next, best music: Agnes Baltsa, who shows you can take the volume down while adding intensity. Finally, most sex: Rinat Shaham. I’m serious, cover the children’s eyes or you’ll have to explain what she’s doing with that rose and the gentleman’s trousers. The pictures above are outtakes from the video with Ms Shaham, with with whom I feel a relationship because she had the role when I saw Carmen. She’s a fine soprano, but I can’t find a recording that captures what took my breath away there in the hall: Her lower register, unusual in a soprano and just huge, you could feel the air in the hall shuddering on her low notes. Oh, and did I mention sex? Yeah, verges on NSFW. It’s so great to watch a human put out a thousand volts of sex and joy and a million volts of strength and charisma.