Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones

Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones.

My friend Melissa is a professional singer and a lover of opera. I’m not a professional singer, but I am a liker of opera. A few years ago I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen. It was my first time and I was transported. When I told her about my experience, Melissa sighed. Carmen, she said, was boring. A lazy go-to for companies looking to trot out all the old cliches and still sell some tickets.

Whatever, Melissa.

Although it wasn’t an immediate success, Bizet, Meilhac and Halévy’s Carmen is now one of the most popular operas and several of its songs represent opera to the world. You might not recognize the name of the song below, but hit play — you know the song; you know the character.

It’s in regular rotation on stage, on the radio, on the silver screen, on the page, and an inspiration of many a contemporary romance.

Carmen is foundational.

Carmen is great, the first time you see it. The second time it’s still affecting, but by the tenth time, you think, surely it’s reached Nutcracker levels of played-out cash-grab? Surely other people see it? The problem with Carmen is this: it’s about passion. Unreasonable, consuming passion, in wild circumstances. Carmen is a Romani singer and Jose is a Spanish soldier. The Romani exist on the fringes of Spanish society and Jose is a sworn defender of it. But like every other man in Spain, Jose is consumed by Carmen’s beauty and sensuality. He abandons his childhood love, his post, and eventually reason, in pursuit of her — the opera ends with him killing her, consumed by jealousy. Carmen, you see, is much more interested in a famous toreador than she is a soldier.

Woven through the opera is some light political commentary: that it centers on the working classes and the itinerant Romani population made it daring for its time, and still unusual in its locating great romance amongst the poor. Some companies lean on this side of the story, but for most, it’s feels all the way.

em est Carmen coverem est’s Carmen, an erotic, gay manga, is a story that works on the heart more than it does the head, but her reinterpretation is clever too — and not just because she found a way to put a new spin on it. In her Carmen, Jose is in a relationship with the toreador, here called Lucas, after the character in the Prosper Mérimée novella, rather than the opera which calls him Escamillo. Oh yes, did I fail to mention that Carmen is also a novella? It’s the source for the opera and leans quite heavily on Carmen’s unfaithful nature and Jose’s meanness. (So hard out here for a man.) In em est’s Carmen, she’s still the object of Jose’s obsession, but rather than being possessive of her, he is fixated, befuddled, and frustrated by her: “I envied her. She was everything I’m not. Perhaps I even wanted to be Carmen.”

Envy, I think, is an element that productions of Carmen ignore in their comfort — Jose is “in love” with Carmen insofar as he is in love with what she represents: freedom and passion. “Carmen will always be free,” is how Mérimée’s version of the character puts it, while musicologist Hugh McDonald says that “French opera never produced another femme as fatale as Carmen.” Everything about Carmen is fatal, while also being captivating. Jose’s obsession with her, in any interpretation, can only lead to death.

Here is the sequence of events in em est’s Carmen: Carmen and Jose meet at the cigar factory (a fixed point in all Carmen’s) and she leaves him a rose; Jose and Lucas wake up together and Lucas tells Jose to wear the rose; later that day, Jose sees Lucas at the stadium with Carmen on his arm; the next day he asks Lucas to dedicate a bull to him, promising to to get Carmen for him in return; Carmen and Jose meet and like in all Carmens, he kills her and lives long enough to regret it.

It’s a simple story, and like the opera and the novella, almost wholly propelled by love/obsession/envy. The characters are indebted to the  tropes of yaoi but are not so to-type, just as the characters in Bizet’s Carmen are not quite of the old opera comique tradition, as much as they are informed by it, but leaning into the the then new opera verisimo. Verisimo is a post-romantic movement interested in ordinariness and the lower classes, rejecting Romanticism’s myth-making and associations of wealth, purity, and worthiness. em est’s work, Carmen and otherwise, is similarly tradition straddling. Yaoi formulae are still apparent in her Carmen, insofar as two men in love are kept apart by a woman, and in the lines of their bodies (more on this later) but this is much darker, much less pretty stuff than her early yaoi.

Carmen by em est, first pages

Is Jose’s obsession romantic? No! His love for Lucas is real, but it’s a spoiled love. His jealousy sets in from the moment Carmen’s rose falls out of his pocket. But his hesitance, his lack of security in the relationship is, I think, established a page previous, when he scolds Lucas for “sleeping the day away.” Lucas responds: “if I could do that I would quit my job and join the army.” Here is Jose’s discomfort/envy of Carmen’s nature in its earliest form. em est’s Jose says that he envies Carmen, all that he isn’t, but so too does he envy Lucas. All Joses are simultaneously in love with and repelled by their lovers.

em est’s Jose finds Carmen both repellent and addictive, and like Bizet’s Carmen, he initially disdains her. It’s his disdain that spurs her to act out even more (if you hadn’t guessed already, Carmen lives loud), in order to catch his attention. She gets it, by embodying a mesmerizing, ideal yet dangerous femininity, and leaving him her rose. em est covers these initiating events in a scant few, wordless panels. Knowing the story will help you read these pages quicker, but I don’t think it’s necessary. em est communicates enough through composition, gesture, and tropes that it’s clear from the start that we’re in the realm of intense passion, seduction, and obsession. There’s something about that first panel, all heavy ink-shadow and angles, the building made up of cornices, columns, and decoration. Then that lush rose held up to her lips. Jose, watching her walk away. The rose. Could it be any clearer? Roses mean passion, but they also mean poison (so do women, in fiction).

em est Carmen portraitIt’s a function of the Japanense comics industry more than a deliberate, artistic choice, but I love that em est’s Carmen is in black and white. No red in sight — passion doesn’t need it, and the stark quality of the work offsets the story in a way that lush colours and costumes dont. What is deliberate is the heaviness of the blacks. This book is black and white and a little bit grey, but with few shades and little crosshatching. It’s not brutalist through and through, though, her lines are more romantic, her characters sleepy-eyed and shaggy-haired, her roses (they are everywhere, of course!) in enticing full bloom. Epaulets, ruffles, and sashes are a must for the period, but here they’re full of movement — not even Jose’s full military uniform has any hope of restraining him. Often he and the other soldiers are only halfway buttoned up, hair out of place, literally bursting out of their uniforms. It’s Lucas, I think, who manages regality and authority, when he’s done up in his toreador uniform — unlike Jose, he’s comfortable in his skin. I like that contrast of inking and lines; it’s a neat way of expressing the tensions running through the work.

Immediately after Lucas finds Carmen’s rose, Jose asks him, “who will today’s bull be for?” When Lucas replies that he will dedicate the kill to the duchess, Jose asks,”Do you love me? Don’t answer that.” He is leaning over Lucas, embracing him. Lucas senses the awkwardness of the moment — his response is just an elipsis — but isn’t uncomfortable. Only Jose feels danger. Lucas is already linked to Carmen in his mind. Not only did he find it and suggest Jose wear it, reminding him of Carmen’s insistence on his attention, but he is, like Carmen, outside of his personal control, and outside of his world of control. Like Carmen, Lucas can be touched, but can he be had?

Love is far, you can wait for it
You no longer await it, there it is.

em est closes the comic with this quote from “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, also known as “Habanera,” an aria from Bizet’s Carmen. The comic opens with these lines, also from the aria:

Love is a rebellious bird
That none can tame,
And it is well in vain that one calls it
If it suits him to refuse.

Nothing to be done, threat or prayer.
The one talks well, the other is silent;
And it’s the other that I prefer
He says nothing but he pleases me.

Passion, betrayal, and obsession — ok, we got it. But Carmen, wether Mérimée or Bizet, is a story about omens and trying to cheat fate. Not the grand fate of princes, but the kind of bad end ordinary people are sure to meet when they ignore every reasonable warning. That’s what you get in the first pages of em est’s Carmen, and in that epigraph: an omen.