Despite the popularity of Carmen, more operas by the French composer have disappeared than are ever performed today.
Bizet was a young man when he decided to write “an Italian farce in the manner of Don Pasquale”. He’d just won the Prix de Rome, moved to Italy and had settled into the bohemian life paid for by the prize.
Thinking that opera might be his future he worked initially on studying and imitating the brilliant, exuberant and virtuosic music from the previous generation of Italian composers. The result was Don Procopio, a full-length comedy about an older man who’s being set-up to marry a younger woman. She’s not a fan of the idea (she wants to marry the tenor) and with the help of her brother and her aunt they foil the plot and drive poor Don Procopio away.
Caricature of Bizet, 1860
The music is unmistakable Bizet, full of dramatic shifts and complex ensembles, and it retains its charm while delivering all the vocal fireworks we’ve come to expect from the period. The composer finds moments of depth and pathos in the fall of Don Procopio, adding colour to the stock comedy, and there’s a third dimension to all of the characters that comes through the music. It’s startlingly good.
Required to submit some music as part of his prize, Bizet sent the score to Paris in 1859 where it disappeared for a number of years. Several attempts to publish and perform the opera were attempted in the early 20th century with the first full performance of the original work only occurring in 1958 in Strasbourg.
Perth’s Lost and Found Opera (of which I’m a part) is preparing to present the first Australian production. Our mission is to discover lost operas and present them in found spaces, new venues that resonate with the subject of the opera. A found space can be anything. Over the last few years we’ve performed operas in an art gallery, a hotel room, a synagogue, a piazza and a former insane asylum.
The question we get asked the most is: what makes a work lost? The follow-up question in this instance is, how can the composer who brought us Carmen and The Pearlfishers lose an opera? The most obvious answer to both questions is that maybe it’s not very good. There are plenty of works out there that have thankfully disappeared below the surface because they were ill conceived or poorly constructed. Even great composers have the odd miss, and it’s not surprising that we hear little of such works. But in my view, if an opera is good and not performed then perhaps other forces are in play.
First, it’s necessary to realise that the standard model for opera involves a decent sized lyric theatre, a cast of principals, a chorus, an orchestra and a staging that brings these together in a coherent way. Second, the costs of all this means that we are more likely to see works that have some name recognition, in
other words established masterpieces that are less of a risk for a paying audience.
So, in the simplest terms, a great number of works disappear from our diet because they don’t satisfy both conditions. In our research we come across works by well-known composers that are rarely performed, we see works of merit by relatively unknown composers, and we see works that because of their structure, cast or length don’t fit comfortably into a programme.
What’s exciting to me is the sheer volume of work out there, literally thousands of operas, that have yet to be revived. One only needs to be aware of the fantastic work being done by Pinchgut and at Brisbane Baroque to witness companies who are exploring rare operas from the Baroque and Classical periods alone.
“The audience are invited to dress up and come as guests at a wedding reception“
For Lost and Found, the coming months will see us immersed in Don Procopio, Bizet’s fresh comedy about an old Italian man and a young woman and the generational differences that divide them. The ‘found’ venue in this case is the Vasto Club in Balcatta, a glorious celebration of ethnic migration and culture in the heart of one of Perth’s most vibrant Italian communities. Our production will play on the ideas of aging and what love can and should mean, finding the humour in the music and in a unique setting. The audience are invited to dress up and come as guests at a wedding reception, eating dinner (ravioli and osso bucco of course) and have a party even before the vows are spoken.
Lost and Found’s production of Bizet’s Don Procopio plays at the Vasto Club, Balcatta, June 14-18