Carmen out swinging: Sally Potter takes on opera’s femme fatale

From Thriller (1979) through Orlando (1993) to YES (2005), Sally Potter’s films have been celebrated for their bold, intriguing, curious female protagonists who refuse to conform to what’s expected of them. “I think there’s a seduction and an attraction in somebody who is holding their own ground and refusing to wimpify their own power in that drag act known as femininity,” she states. That’s no surprise: Potter is one of the few internationally renowned women directors, and throughout her career she has worked independently, writing, directing – and sometimes choreographing and scoring – her own films.

So when it was announced that she was directing Carmen for the English National Opera, it seemed the perfect match, given that Carmen is probably the best-known female opera protagonist, and certainly the feistiest. Potter says: “Carmen as a female figure is unusual in being this strong and independent centre of the story. But that’s got occluded by all these notions of the femme fatale, and the coquette and the woman whose actions you can’t understand because she picks a man then drops him for no reason… ‘Oh! Aren’t women incomprehensible!’ Which is of course rubbish.”

Of course, it’s been on my mind how the tabloids here treat gypsies or asylum seekers, and at the moment gangs and hoodies

Past critics have seen Carmen’s longing for freedom as “incomprehensible”, but it is what attracted Potter to the piece. It is what drives the opera: the other characters follow her to a bar where she goes to party in Act II, and then to the mountains where she runs a smuggling operation in Act III. Finally, they follow her to watch a bullfight in Act IV. “The men in the story of Carmen want her, they want to follow the wildness and the lack of hypocritical moral constraint that is around her. So they want to follow that part of themselves that is repressed or calcified. She opens a chink of light, and they go towards that light, that luminosity. So she’s a leader throughout.”

Ethnically suspect, mystically gifted, sexually liberated, and a leader: Carmen caused a scandal when she danced onto the stage in 1874. Critics called her “a tiger-cat” and “a snake”, seeing her as animalistic and wild. Not only that, but she was an outsider: a gypsy determined to move freely through Europe, to resist borders and rules.

Unlike the critics, Potter doesn’t see it as her job to cast “moral judgment, good or bad, but it may be my place to bring some observations of the dynamics, and some perceptions of the stereotypes around those dynamics. Of course, it’s been on my mind how the tabloids here treat gypsies or asylum seekers, and at the moment gangs and hoodies”, whose exclusion from civil society is reflected by the male and female choruses, who in Potter’s production will be private security guards smuggling on the sides, and sex workers.

Setting her production in an abstracted present-day England, in which the Don Jose is a private security guard who catches sight of Carmen on the CCTV monitor in his portakabin in Act I, and the chorus smuggle their way, following the Beckham-like celebrity bullfighter Escamillio, to sunshine and sangria in España in Act IV, Potter is symbolically engaging racism, sexism and conservatism, Potter looks likely to challenge the critics as Carmen’s composer Georges Bizet did. Potter does, and doesn’t, buy Nietzsche’s line that the heart of the opera is the brutal battle between the sexes. “It’s in there. It took me by surprise the other day, when I had the whole chorus in rehearsal. I had divided them into two camps, all the women on one side and all the men on the other. I watched, and thought: oh my God, this is war. But the battle of the sexes is so misunderstood, because in reality the polarity between male and female in the piece is also within one individual: qualities of control and surrender, power and powerlessness.” Carmen and her lover, the soldier Don Jose, are symbolically two sides of a single character, and each of them struggle to get free from social constraints on gender.

The vast majority of all productions that demonise Carmen portray her as an incomprehensible dark continent

Don Jose is usually considered the hero of the piece. Typically characterised as a thoughtful man led astray by a wanton woman, he is destroyed, thinks Potter, by “the lack of dignity he perceives in deciding to surrender to a woman, or to his own feeling for a woman. He is someone who is splitting and falling, somebody who’s disintegrating.” In Potter’s unusual interpretation, Don Jose is on the verge of discovering the feminine side of himself. “Don Jose, in killing Carmen, kills himself. He’s constantly trying to play safe in a way, with the uncontrollability and unpredictability of life itself.”

That’s the opposite of Potter’s own working methods. Directing opera, she protests, is “definitively outside my comfort zone. What’s more, I cannot sleep: I am obsessive. The tag line the ENO marketing department produced for the opera was ‘Passion. Obsession. Tragedy.’ I have become passionate and obsessively – not yet tragically, but certainly insomniac-ally – engaged with the themes of the piece, and how the hell in the time available to pull something off that goes beyond the clichés.” What she brings from her experience of film to working in a live medium is the ability to work with “multiple layers of very fast thinking to an unknown end.”

A perfectionist who wrote over 40 drafts of the Orlando screenplay, she likes to “push performers until they’re just on the edge of their limits, so they’re still in control but not as in control as is comfortable for them”. This, she argues, takes them beyond technical polish into surprising themselves and the audience. It’s an attitude and respect that she learned from her first, intimate introduction to opera performance: watching her mother, who began to train as a singer when Potter was in her early teens, perform in amateur dramatics.

Her family connection is one reason that Potter took on the challenge of directing her first opera. The other, she says, occurred to her “only when one day, in solitude, I asked myself the question, if I imagine myself as a ninety year old woman looking back at my life, will I regret having done it or not having done it? And I thought, I would regret not having done it, because there has to be space in a director’s life once to direct an opera, and if an opera, why not Carmen?”

Part of the attraction, too, is the chance to riposte “the vast majority of all productions that demonise Carmen, mystify Carmen herself as a woman, as an incomprehensible dark continent”. Researching the original libretto, Potter realised that casting Carmen and the female chorus as cigarette girls “at that time actually meant, in coded form, prostitution and drugs. So the opera is concerned with street survival: what’s possible for people who are poor.” The characterisation that other directors have used to condemn Carmen is, in Potter’s hands, an opportunity to investigate the lives of those who are rarely seen and heard on the opera stage.

[Note from November 2021: The original film included in this post was no longer accessible, but it seems likely to have been this one]

“Carmen, in being named as a gypsy, which she was in the original story, is doubly outside the law.” Potter, whose film The Man Who Cried offers an insight into the lives of Roma in Europe just before WWII, brings a critical approach to the exoticism that dominates productions of Carmen – and particularly her tarot prediction of her own death. “The fortune-telling,” she argues, “is related to mythology – and a degree of actuality – about gypsies. It also ties in to historical themes about witches, and women’s abilities being punished, because people are fearful or confused. It’s really an emblem of female power and knowledge, so it gets scare-ified or cliché-ified into this thing about women and their mysterious powers.”

While feminist scholars Catherine Clément and Susan McClary have mourned the narrative conventions that seem to demand the tragic deaths of female 19th century opera characters, Potter sees Carmen’s death as an escape from the two men who demand to own her, symbolic of an oppressive society – but also as a spiritually powerful act. “What she does with her stoicism, at the end, is that she’s the teacher, saying, ‘I accept, this is going to happen. If it’s going to happen, I’m going to face it with some courage and dignity.’ She longs for freedom more than she longs for love. There’s something very adult about that.”

Working with opera in the 21st century is a matter of longing for freedom, as well. Opera, Potter says, has an “institutional stuckness of how people work, or values and expectations”. Part of that stuckness is political; part of it is practical, to do with budgets, performers and the inability to exercise a writer-director’s prerogative to change the text. “So the areas of freedom are narrower, and therefore in a way more saturated, more intense. Perhaps in the end is just the freedom of the fact that it’s a living thing.”

Like Carmen, Potter is searching for freedom – and finding it, for herself and for her audiences, in the most unlikely places.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Currently teaching at the University of Cambridge, she freelances for publications including Sight & Sound, Shebytches and Verge. Her book on Sally Potter will be published by Wallflower in 2008, and in 2009 Wayne State will publish the collection she’s co-editing on feminism and filmmaking