Charmin’ “Carmen”

The thing I miss about most opera is raffishness.

You know, that music-hall, theatrical-underbelly, up-from-the-depths, cut-loose, anything-but-grand collaboration with the audience: the sly wink.

1748840-thumb.jpgWagner’s a mighty guy, but he’s no winker. Puccini’s plenty theatrical, but he wouldn’t wink if a butterfly fluttered past his eyeball. OK, Mozart winked. A lot. And I suppose you could call the elephant stomping around the stage in “Aida” a wink, but really, that’s more of a giant-size goggle.

There’s plenty of joy in the music: Listening to Leontyne Price or Maria Callas or Renee Fleming or Jessye Norman or Dawn Upshaw can transport me to places I love to visit again and again. But so often the staging (especially in the cavernous halls where most opera is performed), and the Deep Seriousness of the composition (I’m talking to you, Ring of the Nibelung guy), seem designed to dwarf the audience into a state of insignificance.

Still, I can’t help thinking things were somehow looser in opera’s early days, in those intimate Baroque halls where you didn’t need opera glasses to see the expressions on the singers’ faces, and where gilding the lily — essentially, making a virtue of the showy art of ornamental improvisation — kept things loose and lively and less High Art than living entertainment. Show biz, if you will.

So when I saw last weekend that a group called Opera Theater Oregon was presenting Georges Bizet’s glorious-sleazy “Carmen” at a downtown Portland nightclub called the Someday Lounge as live accompaniment to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent-movie version of the 1875 opera, I was there.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Was this earth-shattering, life-changing opera? No. It wasn’t a substitute for grand opera, it was an annotation. But it was also smart and sassy and well-sung and a lot of fun. And the audience cheered and hooted and clapped (the beer and shots of whiskey might have had a hand in that) and became, as a lively audience should, a part of the show.

“Carmen” seems the ideal opera for this sort of thing — sexy and violent and a little foolish and jam-packed with hummable tunes. Everybody knows the songs from “Carmen,” even if they don’t know that’s where they come from. This is opera for the proletariat — and at twelve bucks a (very hard on the gluteous maximus) seat, Opera Theater Oregon’s “Carmen” was way more proletarian than Portland Opera.

The movie, with the hilariously flirtatious Geraldine Farrar as the gypsy gamine Carmen and glowering Wallace Reid as the goody-two-shoes turned murderer-for-love Don Jose, is both very funny in its antique clumsiness and artfully moving: It whips the audience back and forth between light spoofery and genuine engagement. While it lacks the enduring artistic stature of the silent-movie classics from its period, it must have been a rouser in its time: According to Opera Theater Oregon’s amusing program notes, it was denounced by the Pennsylvania Board of Motion Picture Censors as “shocking and improper.” Almost as good as being Banned in Boston.

Katie Taylor conceived and directed Opera Theater Oregon’s adaptation, and one of her tasks was to edit Bizet’s score to match the length and rhythms of the movie, a challenge she met very well: This was a crisp, easy-to-follow production that honored its source at the same time it (here’s that word again) winked at it. Accompanied only by a single pianist (Susan McDaniel the night I saw it) and some extraordinarily funny, old-time-radio-style sound effects by a man who goes by the name of Squish, it put the singing metaphorically front and center, even though the chorus was in a balcony and the main characters were at the side of the stage so they wouldn’t get in the way of the screen.

Two good regional singers, Leslie W. Green as Don Jose and Erik Hundtoft as Escamillo, the dashing toreador, held down the lead male roles admirably. But the true star of this production, as she should be, was Elizabeth Madsen Bradford as the maddeningly fickle and desirable Carmen. Deep and throaty and vibrant, her voice projected with an easy, lively command.

Here was a compelling Carmen, seductive and sinister: You might say, raffish. The cheerful, lace-netted cigarette girl winding through the audience selling candy cigarettes and bubble-gum cigars didn’t hurt the mood, either.

Opera Theater Oregon has three more offerings coming up in its 2008-09 season, which it refers to raffishly as “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves”: Menotti’s “The Medium” and an OTO original, “The Head of Mata Hari,” in October; a rewritten version of John Gay’s terrific “The Beggar’s Opera” in March 2009; and music from Verdi’s “La Traviata” to accompany the 1921 Valentino flick “Camille,” in June 2009. Check ’em out at

— Bob Hicks