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Music: Cincinnati’s Carmens

3 minute read

Proud of its culture is Cincinnati, “Queen City of the West.” Part of its cultural tradition, for 20 summers, has been opera in a pavilion in the Cincinnati Zoo, where shrilling peacocks sometimes compete with the piccolos, roaring lions double in bass. Last Sunday night Bizet’s Carmen opened another Zoo season. There are no great Carmens today. One of the most persistent, bouncing Italian Bruna Castagna, gave her usual interpretation of the gypsy who seduces Soldier Don José (Tenor Raoul Jobin, Metropolitan debutant of last season), then gives him what Broadway calls the brusheroo.

Cincinnati heard another Carmen that night—on a showboat moored near the city’s public dock. Captain Billy Bryant plies the Ohio River, playing melodramas straight for West Virginia hillbillies in the spring, pulling for sophisticated hisses and catcalls in Cincinnati in the summer. Raised on a showboat (his father, in his 80s, still plays in the family troupe), Captain Billy is a hard-voiced, articulate showman who wrote a book about the Bryants, sounds off on the theatre in the Sunday New York Times. He got the idea of doing Carmen long ago, when he found a Spanish shawl in a box of the cheap candy which he, like the rest of his troupe, peddles between acts. Captain Billy worked up his Carmen when the Zoo opera announced its production. His working up consisted of throwing away nearly all of Bizet’s melodious, phony-Spanish music, nearly all of Prosper Merimee’s phony-Spanish story.

Captain Billy has a cast of eight blond, un-Spanish-looking members who wash decks, sell tickets, move props as well as sing, dance, feed lines to Captain Billy on & off stage. Carmen opens with all hands singing Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here. Carmen is Billy’s 18-year-old daughter Betty, who does a song and trucks to the jazzed-up Habanera while her mother pounds a little red piano. Captain Billy revised a scene in which Carmen consorts with smugglers in a cafe, made the chief smuggler a Greek restaurant proprietor, played by himself. Bullfighter Escamillo announces that he is “the greatest bull-thrower in all Spain,” while Carmen begs him to “come to the Zoo opera to see my understudy.” Climax is the bullfight scene (usually off-stage noises), in which the bull, accompanied by the announcement: “Here comes Ferdinand,” appears munching a carnation. Instead of getting killed, the bull performs a soft-shoe dance.

The audience was not supposed to know it, but the fore & aft of the bull were Carmen and Don José (Benny Wullkotte, 17-year-old Cincinnatian). Said Captain Billy of his production: “It’s 10% Carmen and 90% bull.”

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