Sunday, November 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Melinda Bargreen

Hot And Bothered By `Steamy' Opera? You're Not Alone

The first time I realized opera could be an X-rated art form was in college, when a school friend returning after a summer in Germany recounted the details of a "Salome" she had seen.

That's the opera where Salome performs the Dance of the Seven Veils before Herod, so entrancing him that he will give her anything she asks for - which, in this case, is the severed head of John the Baptist, with whom she is obsessed.

"And then," concluded my friend, "she took off the last veil, and she was stark naked. Ach du lieber!"

In our society, where opera still is considered quaint highbrow entertainment by much of the populace, we sometimes forget that many opera plots deal almost exclusively with lust, death and violence, as well as virtuoso displays of singing.

Seattle's R-rated "Carmen"

A production such as Seattle Opera's current "Carmen," set in Franco's Spain in the 1950s and heavy on the shock value, is a jolting reminder that this opera is about more than picturesque gypsies. The week before its Oct. 21 opening, Seattle Opera issued a warning that this was to be an "R-rated `Carmen' for adults," but by that time, the production was nearly sold out. As a general policy, the company does not grant refunds.

In the meantime, parents and grandparents around the region had bought "Carmen" tickets, figuring they had the ideal vehicle to introduce youngsters to the most popular opera in the repertoire. What they saw, however, was not the traditional "Carmen," but a production with a heavier than usual quotient of sex and violence.

Some operagoers were offended. One parent reasoned that R-rated movies were off-limits to the family's teenager, and so was an R-rated "Carmen." Another operaphile wrote to the Seattle Opera and to The Times to protest that the "lewd cavorting" was a "tasteless corruption of the original opera." A grandmother called to lament a lost opportunity to introduce children to the enjoyment of opera.

But others also defended the company's right to produce whichever version of "Carmen" it chooses. One regular theatergoer expressed astonishment that parents would want to bring their children to any "Carmen," because the opera's entire basis is sexual obsession.

Drawing fire from traditionalists

For Seattle Opera, a show such as this one presents something of a conundrum. Under the artistic leadership of general director Speight Jenkin, the company has made its name for unconventional and theatrically different opera, in which practitioners of other art forms - dance (Mark Morris), glass art (Dale Chihuly), theater (Lori Larsen) - are invited in to collaborate.

Seattle Opera draws regular fire from traditionalists, who have been horrified at liberties taken with "Don Giovanni," "Aida," "Lohengrin" and the "Ring," among many others. (Jenkins reports that the company has gotten "many fewer" calls and letters about "Carmen" than it received about "Don Giovanni.")

At the same time, the company needs and wants to develop young audiences, and it fosters education programs that draw young people in (frequently to dress rehearsals). Young people, unimpressed by tradition, are also the most likely to appreciate venturesome productions: my son loved the "Don Giovanni" that drew so much hate mail.

It is harder and harder, these days, to bring up kids without exposing them to the sex and violence that saturate so much of TV and the movies. Every family has its own standard; I know families where 18-year-olds shun R-rated movies, and families whose hard-eyed 8-year-olds are allowed to pick out the most horrific of the slasher flicks at the video rental store, as well as the full run of anything on cable TV. The former family will hate Seattle Opera's "Carmen"; the latter will yawn and wonder what the fuss is about.

The truth is that no matter how you present it, "Carmen" is full of bad attitudes (she works in a cigarette factory, for heaven's sake). In New Zealand, where the Auckland Opera covered up Carmen's cleavage in posters in response to complaints about indecency, one writer ironically proposed a revised " `Carmen' for our time' " in which Carmen is a member of the Animal Liberation Collective, plotting to end the exploitation of bulls, and the jealous Don Jose is required to seek anger-management counseling. In the finale, the two lovers embrace and detail plans to offer workshops in cultural identity and empowerment. The bull defeats the toreador Escamillo.

Until such a "Carmen" hits the stage, perplexed parents do have recourse. When you call for opera tickets, ask the ticket office about the production: Is it set in the time and place intended by the composer? Is it suitable for children? If ticket agents don't know, they'll refer you to people who will.

Know before you go, as they say. In the meantime - wouldn't you love to see that politically correct "Carmen," set in a smoke-free vegetarian restaurant?

Melinda Bargreen's column appears Sundays in the Arts Alive section.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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