04 April 2006

Béatrice Uria-Monzon

As Bizet's (and Mérimée's) Carmen

I’ve never met Béatrice Uria-Monzon, but my sister-in-law is a fan, and I approached our telephone interview with more confidence than I might have mustered for a conversation with a singer I’ve heard only on television and recordings. Nevertheless, she’s a tough cookie, and this was the first interview I ever conducted entirely in French, muttering grateful prayers all the while to Carlene Klein, my high-school French teacher.

Mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon made her HGO debut as Carmen in 2000, and she returned to the Wortham Center in 2006 as Bizet’s Gypsy heartbreaker. This may have been Houston’s last chance to see her acclaimed interpretation.

“Unfortunately, it is getting difficult to keep finding something new, something fresh, in this part,” she admits. “I say ‘unfortunately,’ because I get a great many offers to sing Carmen, and I’ve begun to turn them down. I’m tired of this impression of not moving forward, and of people who won’t let me do the other things that I want to do.”

She sounds a bit like Carmen herself — a woman who, as Uria-Monzon describes her, “is a symbol of freedom.” The paradox she sees is that Carmen “has been made a prisoner of her image, which has become an archetype of the sensual ‘femme fatale’.”

Reached by telephone on a warm summer morning in her native Gascony, the singer explains. “I don’t agree when people sing her as a seductress, rubbing up against men. It’s exactly the opposite of what’s written in the text. There’s the mystery of love, not this seduction in the first degree. If it were like that, Carmen wouldn’t fascinate men. What fascinates them is that she gets away from them — the mystery of the woman who can’t be tamed, like the ‘oiseau rebelle’ she talks about. That’s what frightens men, and nevertheless fascinates them.”

“What bothers me is the image people have of this woman, the clichés,” she says. “People very often say, ‘Oh, she’s a bitch, she’s a whore, she’s evil’ — very, very exaggerated. But people haven’t really understood this woman, I believe.” She reserves special scorn for people who haven’t troubled to read the source material, a short novel by Prosper Mérimée, and at her urging I finally read the book.

Mérimée’s heroine is a wily survivor, easily the smartest character on view. Though Don José insists that “she always lied,” she’s most often honest; José hears only what he wants, and she divides her time between rescuing and running away from him. It’s hard to imagine a modern-day woman who’d put up with this guy. He’s priggish, jealous, needy, bad-tempered, and dull — and this is his side of the story. Most of the novel is José’s death-row confession to a narrator (Mérimée himself) whose direct interaction with Carmen is limited to a scene in which she steals his watch.

“It’s a very modern text,” says Uria-Monzon of both the novel and the opera, “and you can give many different interpretations to the same phrase. I remember a lady came up to me after a performance and said I’d made Carmen so tender in Act IV, and she didn’t understand. Yet it’s not written anywhere that she’s violent, and it’s not in the music. Why shouldn’t she be tender? Why not try it this way? I’m not saying mine is the only way to interpret it. But Carmen is dealing with a man she’s loved, and now he’s in complete despair, and she’s got to tell him she no longer loves him. Where is it written that she can’t be gentle with him?”

Uria-Monzon didn’t set out to become one of the world’s leading Carmens. When she was asked to audition for the role, in her first production at the Paris Opéra, in 1993, “I couldn’t say no — you don’t say no to the Bastille — but I had no ambition to sing this opera,” she remembers. “There are a lot of singers who say they’re dying to sing Carmen, even sopranos who know they’ll never sing it, and say they regret it. But I was afraid of the part, because it meant learning to let go — and really, this woman doesn’t resemble me at all, no matter what people think!” she laughs.

“I really had to go very far to find an interpretation that was honest,” she admits. “I had to free her first from myself. I tried not to listen to 36 different versions, and not to listen to what people think of Carmen, in their very limited ideas.” Though she respects her predecessors, especially Teresa Berganza and Julia Migenes-Johnson (whose film portrayal “made a big impression on me”), it was more important to find the character in “my experience, my voice, my body.”

She began by asking, “Where and how does this woman resemble me? Everybody’s had a love story — how would I live with this story, in the words of Mérimée and the music of Bizet? How does it speak to me? What Berganza or Crespin did, that’s interesting, obviously, but the reading one has for oneself, that’s the main thing.”

Clearly, Uria-Monzon brings a critical intelligence to Carmen, along with physical beauty, sizzling dramatic ability, and a sumptuous voice. But one other asset really sets her apart from other Carmens: a French passport.

Carmen is the most widely performed French opera in the world, yet since World War II, the only really notable French-born Carmens have been the great Régine Crespin, and Uria-Monzon herself. Nevertheless, Bizet’s Spanish Gypsy is quintessentially French, as the singer confirms.

‘What’s French about her is the music, and that’s where people tend to get the wrong ideas. Yes, she’s a Gypsy who lives in Spain, but musically, she’s completely French.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of Americans, and they’re often intimidated by French music,” she continues. “For them, what’s most difficult to understand is that you can’t do what’s not in the score. You have a great deal of freedom, and yet everything is written out. This music has a certain finesse. If there’s a rest, then you have to rest; you can’t ignore it. You have to sing the notes as they’re marked; it’s not like some Italian music, for example. I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well, even in French!”

“Very often people don’t understand the music, even French people, and in this opera, it’s an unusual blending of French music and Carmen’s character. Textual intelligence is very important in Bizet’s music: the words are very important. And Bizet really struggled to locate Carmen’s character, to reveal it musically. People forget that. They come to the opera with other ideas, and they get mixed up. In any case, Bizet’s music is very complex, but there’s a simplicity in the interpretation, and you can’t go beyond that, beyond what’s written. And that’s very difficult — simplicity is the most difficult thing!”

Still, she doesn’t find it entirely surprising that so few French singers are known for singing Carmen — or anything else. “It’s difficult to have a career here and to have a career abroad,” she says. “I don’t know what accounts for it, but the phenomenon does exist. You can be French and have a certain talent, but directors prefer, for whatever reason, to hire foreigners.”

She suggests that part of the trouble may lie in the French language itself, which doesn’t lend itself to singing on an operatic stage. “Singing in French can get too precious, too careful,” she observes, and the nasal n and throaty r sounds pose a challenge. Moreover, the French take their language très seriously; foreigners naturally are intimidated, “and even I, who was educated here and sing often in French, get criticized for my French diction!”

Her reception has been warmer lately, however. “Singing is a learning process. It’s like a sculptor, chipping away at a block of marble,” she says. (Coincidentally, her father is a visual artist.) “I started with my voice and gave it a form, and that’s allowed me to control it. I find an enormous pleasure in delivering the text because I know my voice better now, because I enjoy the language. If one masters the technique better, one has more color in the palette.”

Speaking of warm receptions, she’s looking forward to her return to Houston. “The people are very nice. And Houston does something every opera house should do. To welcome the singers, there’s a committee that takes care of them. The woman who came to pick me up at the airport has become a really close friend. Every singer has a host, and we’re invited out, and it’s really nice. It changes things. Usually it’s no fun – we’re all alone, in hotels, in cities we don’t know. And this is much nicer. Really, they should do this everywhere. ”

She also appreciates that there’s enough rehearsal time at HGO to do a thorough job, without getting bogged down. It’s not that way everywhere, she notes tartly.

And what were her impressions of Texas? “It’s so spread out! In the industrial areas, it’s quite surprising. I don’t speak English very well, so my contacts were ephemeral, which makes it harder to get a sense of the Texans. But I could see that you have to go to the United States to understand the Americans. You can’t stay in France and say, ‘They’re like this or like that.’ You have to go over there and see what they do. You can’t judge — you have to go over there. I find the Americans are amazing.”

A somewhat different version of this portrait appeared in Opera Cues, the magazine of Houston Grand Opera, edited by the wonderful Laura Chandler.