Saturday, February 25, 2012

Grey and Red: Carmen over breakfast

When you come to Victoria in February, you can get almost any kind of weather.  On the one hand, the snowdrops and the crocuses are up and the tulips and daffodils have emerged.  On the other hand, it can rain for days at a time.  We touched down at about 9 a.m. on Thursday morning, with many days of rain forecast, and so made the most of the sunshine, walking in Sidney and driving to the north edge of the Saanich peninsula, and walking down the rather twee, touristy mall on Government to visit two Victoria institutions, Murchie's Tea and Munro's Bookstore.

Sure enough; yesterday morning the rain and the wind had moved in.  So we drove off to look for a quilt shop west of Victoria and then came back to the city, planing to spend the afternoon in the lovely art gallery here.  There was an Emily Carr exhibitioin on, which made Bill ecstatic.  And it's fun for me to simply stand next to him, listening to his reactions to her work. I'm reminded of how much freer he is to simply have a reaction and to art; unlike me, he doesn't feel that need to reason or analyze, but simply enters the world of the canvas before him. 

I was more drawn to work that echoed the colours of the landscape around us:  beautiful serene greys and taupes of a Japanese Woodcut or an Art McKay that wasn't one of his mandalas. I've often noticed that you leave an art gallery seeing the entire world with more care, curiosity, and intensity, but I hadn't thought about an aesthetic you took in with you.

Afterwards, we drove through the rain up the eastern coast of the island and noticed how this weather hadn't affected the natives.  Three elderly ladies in bright clothes and even brighter umbrellas were setting out for a walk along the beach.  I would have taken a photographs if they had stood still long enough!  Another hardy soul was sitting under an enormous umbrella looking out to sea.  Everyone here is cheerful and helpful, in spite of the grey weather.  Perhaps like Veronica in Cambridge, they simply take the beauty on its own terms.

Then last night we went to see Bizet's Carmen.  I haven't been to live opera in years, having found the productions in Winnipeg difficult to believe in and the singers' voices strained out of tune by the need to project to the back rows of the Winnipeg Centennial Auditorium.  But holidays are partly for doing things you wouldn't normally do and for shaking yourself out of the apathy of habit.  So since the opera was on, we went.  This young cast had wonderful, agile, expressive voices and the look of the whole production was so engrossing that whether to believe in it or not didn't occur to you.  The set designer made wonderful use of a curving openwork wooden structure that moved on a turntable.  It not only served as someplace for the children's chorus to climb, but it marked "inside" and insiders from "outside" and outsiders. 

Carmen is definitely an outsider, a gypsy who is true only to her own desires.  Whether you love her or not doesn't matter; in fact, it might be a disadvantage to love a woman who can't resist seeking what she doesn't have.  As Bill and I walked back to our hotel through the damp air last night, I tried to sum up my reactions, but it took some coffee and a view of the bay this morning to make clear what I'd felt.  I thought (here's me being analytical again) that I should have been able to bring some feminist ire to Carmen's death, but I couldn't.  After all, women have been punished for centuries when they follow their desires, and being stabbed for being unfaithful smacks of the intimate misogynistic violence that feminists everywhere are attempting to challenge.

At the same time, there seems to me something profoundly anti-social to say, in effect, "The only thing that matters to me is that I get what I want.  I don't care what I do to other people in the process."  We can't live that way.  So with beautiful music, exquisite voices, a compelling character whose very attractiveness is her fatal flaw, Bizet unsettled me.  Looking over a cup of coffe at my husband and at a sky that was trying hard to shake its clouds, this seemed a very good thing.


  1. I had almost the same problem with the newest film version of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton (besides the obvious problem that it's not "nonsense"). On one hand, Alice is a woman who won't be put into the box that her society dictates. On the other hand, her attitude smacks of teenage selfishness: the "I-do-what-I-want" attitude. This attitude seems to me to be a perversion of feminism...or perhaps just a mishandling of it.

    1. Maybe this is something young feminists need to take up. We certainly want women to have control over their lives and to feel free to escape society's boxes. At the same time, ethics--which aren't in any way determined by gender--need to remain a constant. How do young women balance these two?