The Mental Time Machine
The Metropolitan Opera has a new production of Bizet’s Carmen, which premiered in New York City last New Year’s Eve. I read the review by Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times’ most competent music critic, who understands singing as well as he knows operatic literature. Mr. Tommasini raved over the production, the work of the English director Richard Eyre, and gave the cast, which includes Elīna Garanča in the title role and Roberto Alagna as Don José, high praise as well. The new Carmen sounds like a real accomplishment altogether. But for one thing: Mr. Eyre moved the setting of the opera forward, from the Seville of the 1830’s stipulated by Prosper Mérimée, whose novella Bizet’s librettists had adapted for the stage, to that of the 1930’s.
Now Carmen is a work that nobody—director, conductor, or singer—has a right to get wrong, which means, in part, to meddle with, save for a damn good reason. Putting Micaela (whose music is some of the opera’s most glorious) in the smugglers’ pass with a woolen coat and brown satchel common to women of the lower-middle class in the dreary interwar period is an example of meddlesomeness of the inexcusable sort. Eyre has explained that Carmen is too familiar to audiences, whom he hoped to shock and awe into a fresh appreciation of the opera by evoking the brutal and repressive spirit of the Spanish Civil War. My own immediate reaction to this bit of political correctness was to reflect that, had the Communists won in Spain, an updated Carmen might plausibly be set outside a gulag fence instead of a bullring. The serious objection, however, is that neither Mérimée’s book nor Bizet’s opera touches in the least on the politics, liberal or monarchist, of early 19th-century Spain, which is wholly extraneous to both works.
One might suppose that the fact of Carmen’s familiarity indicates the opera’s huge popularity, which suggests in turn that there never was a need to make it less familiar to operagoers. But even if there had been, moving the historical setting forward by a full century fails to accomplish this feat. Surely the Seville of Mérimée’s time is no more difficult to grasp imaginatively than the Seville of Orwell’s, which would be equally unrecognizable to modern tourists. If familiarity were the criterion, Eyre could have put Carmen in the socialist Spain of the early 21st century, with, in the background of the action, gay couples leaving the town hall in wedding parties and immigrant girls from Morocco washing their aprons outside the cigarette factory alongside the gypsy lasses. Or, if shock were the director’s principal aim, he could have set the opera a hundred years in the future, when Spain has become a Muslim country, cigarettes have been outlawed, and Christians instead of bulls are being killed in the arena. In that case, Eyre’s problem would have been that the composer’s score, which combines elements of Berlioz with intimations of Debussy, can no more convey the sensibility of an imagined futuristic Spain than it can the Europe of Edith Piaf. Bizet’s music, like the opera considered as a whole, is at once historical and timeless. At any rate, degrees of familiarity have exactly nothing to do with artistic appreciation. If they did, Mr. Eyre would have had a case to make for adding syncopation and electric guitars to the score and orchestration, and curators at the Vatican could defend a decision to dress the figures in the Pietà in T-shirts, jeans, and Nike shoes.
Directors and conductors are secondary creators who realize their talents by reacting upon the work of the primary artist. Quite naturally, they wish to create in their own right by presenting an established work according to their interpretation of it. And often they really do improve on earlier treatments of a familiar masterpiece. Wieland Wagner’s impressionist productions of his grandfather’s Ring of the Nibelungen music dramas were inspired, resetting these operas from what could have been scenes from Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s country estate into panoramas of light, shadow, color, and geometric form that represent in visual terms the sweeping music of which Owen Wister imagined the vast landscapes of the American West to be the embodiment. Unfortunately, when the secondary creation relies upon the principle of aggiornamento for its effect, interpretation is always at risk of becoming deconstruction.
The temptation in the operatic world to update the classic repertoire is closely associated with the embarrassment many modern patrons feel at their involvement with anything so archaic, so elitist, so passé as opera. I suspect, for instance, that the Metropolitan’s current general manager wishes that Grand Opera could somehow be transformed into Grand Broadway, a hybrid perhaps of Franz Lehár and Busby Berkeley. Even so, artistic aggiornamento is not essentially an expression of cultural insecurity and the tyranny of artistic fashion. Aggiornamento is really an uncontrollable tick acquired from the world of progressive politics, with its vision of endless change carrying all of us forward into an imaginary utopian future.
Consistent viewers of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre over the past 30 years have probably noticed how, in the past decade or so, British producers, directors, and actors appear to have lost the ability to portray in a convincing way the old, aristocratic British society that even now is not yet dead. They fail, I think, because they do not really try; and they do not really try, because their hearts are not in their work. For a new generation, the Old Britain is the Bad Old Britain, even if they never really knew it. The old Masterpiece Theatre—Jeeves and Wooster, the two Lord Peter Wimsey series, Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes—are works of nostalgic affection for a certain literature and a certain social period that are now lost irretrievably. The new people have no such affection for these things. And so they cannot match the wonderful documents their predecessors, not so long ago, created. For them, the world of P.G. Wodehouse, faithfully reproduced, is too painful—or perhaps simply too dull or irrelevant—to contemplate.
I say the matter is of a political nature because the modern political agendum has to do with redeeming cultural sensibility from the past and transferring it ahead in time—not to the present but to the future. Politics in the Western world has become a futuristic activity, so that it has got ahead of itself, chronologically speaking. Progressive politics has succeeded in progressing beyond history. This is why modern governments are so far out of step with their publics. Governments are aware of the discrepancy and are encouraged and flattered by it, rather than dismayed. In their minds, they are the enlightened vanguard whose mission and duty is to lead, persuade, and, if necessary, coerce the plebeian mass at their backs. The Obama administration is determined to establish an overwhelmingly unpopular system of government healthcare because it believes that, faced with a fait accompli, the mass of citizens will, in time, acquiesce in it. If the politicians are out of step with their constituencies, then at least they are ahead of them by that much. They are, they assure themselves, legislating for the future. But they are not legislating for the future; they are legislating in the future. The world they inhabit is not the real world of the present, but an imagined future world that is wholly the creation of the politicians themselves, beavering away in the present time.
Healthcare “reform” is actually healthcare preform, designed to address not the present-day United States but the United States of the future, when the government will have granted citizenship to 20 or 30 million illegal immigrants, repatriated tens of millions more of their nearest relatives, and established a policy of virtually open borders between the United States and much of the rest of the world. “You just have to decide if you want us to be a tomorrow country or a yesterday country,” Bill Clinton declared at a rally in Boston for Martha Coakley, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate to succeed Edward Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. The “today country,” ignored by Clinton, has an unemployment rate of ten percent; a popular majority hostile to amnesty and more immigrants; a balkanized population that is determinedly self-segregated; a bankrupt government; 20 million impoverished resident invaders; and the wreck of the world’s best medical system, destroyed by four decades of government intrusion and mismanagement. But Washington lives in a postdated United States that has already taken its place in an achieved multicultural socialist world in which welfare states can coexist practically with open borders, budgets can be creatively jiggered forever, currency promiscuously printed out of thin air, and doctors created by federal fiat; the Ethiope can lie down with the Somali, the terrorist break bread with the security agent, and the Christian convert his church into a mosque, or else subside into a tolerant secularism whose only doctrines are those of the proposition nation and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Enoch Powell spoke with the mature and tutored wisdom of a statesman when he described that historical relic as one who anticipates future evils and acts to prevent them from coming to pass. The progressive politician, by contrast, foreseeing such evils, takes steps to accommodate them, while preparing to welcome their arrival as inevitable—so inevitable, indeed, as to have in some sense already occurred. The difference between the two is the difference between the historicist and the ideologue, the visionary and the fantasist, the sane man who dwells in time and the insane one who lives, to every intent and purpose, outside of it.
The progressive politician’s illusion is both reflection and cause of the congenital dissatisfaction and discontent of mass democratic man, addicted to living on emotional, as well as financial, credit. “We live from hope to hope,” Samuel Johnson said. A mental time machine is not what the good doctor had in mind. Nor Pascal: “We are not, we hope to be.”
This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.