March 9, 2014

Don José the Misogynist

Carmen, like all extremely popular operas, suffers from its popularity. The sheer familiarity of the tunes - as well as the story - can blind us to some of the work's most profound and fascinating features.

Take the lead tenor role, that soldier boy from the Basque provinces, Don José. Too many opera-lovers see him as a trusting country boy with a loving heart, led astray by that Gypsy witch Carmen. How many times does the word "love" come out of José's mouth? He loves his girl-friend Micaela; he loves his mother; he adores Carmen. Just a big ol' bucket of love, this boy.
Paul Lhérie, who created the
role of  Don José

But, as all teen-aged girls are warned by their mothers, you can't judge the depth of a man's love by what he says; it's how he behaves that tells the tale. (You knew that, right? Of course. My readers all listen to their mothers.)

I've stepped back from the "earnest, passionate country boy" and viewed him objectively through the filter of his actions. And one thing has become very clear:

Don José doesn't love any women. Not Micaela, not Mom and not Carmen. He is a textbook example of a misogynist: a man who harbors hatred towards women.

"Oh, like you're some expert", I can hear you saying. And you're right; I'm not. So I went to the Information Highway on my handy laptop and found people who are. I'm going to cite an article appearing on the website Lifeskills International (available at this link) in which several characteristic behaviors of misogynists are listed. This is the sort of article designed to enable women to decide whether their boyfriends, husbands or fathers exhibit misogyny; it's the sort of situation where answering "yes" to three or four traits suggests counseling be sought. Here are some that stood out to me as being readily apparent  in José. To wit:

  • Playing the role of the "Knight in Shining Armor" ("I'll save you!") Don José says these very words to Carmen twice in their final scene.
  • He's extremely possessive and obsessively jealous. José begins this behavior immediately after his reunion with Carmen in Act 2, when she teasingly tells him she was dancing for men in the tavern earlier that evening. The behavior escalates throughout the rest of the opera.
  • A poor relationship with his mother. This one might surprise you; you may even disagree. After all, doesn't Don José sing a 12-minute extended duet with Micaela in Act 1 in which he does little but proclaim his love for mother, gladly accepting Mom's kiss as delivered by her proxy? Sure, but answer me this: why, then, if he loves his mother so devotedly, does he run as fast as he can towards a Gypsy woman who is her polar opposite?  Carmen is the "anti-Mom"! I'm wondering - what in the world did José's mother do to him? Actually, the libretto gives us some clues. During that Act 1 "I love mom" duet, Micaela slips in a provocative comment, telling José that his mother "wants to forgive him". Forgive him?? What's that about? Many of you will be familiar with our soldier's back story: as a youth in his native village, during a fight occuring in a game of pelota, José killed a man. Then in Act 3, when Micaela visits him in the thieves' hideout to ask him to return with her, once AGAIN she mentions that Mom wants to forgive him on her deathbed. This time, we infer, it's for being a deserter from the military. Here's my theory: all his life, from earliest childhood, Don José has been a constant disappointment to Mamacita, and she is constantly letting him know by making a big show of needing to forgive him. 
  • His view of reality is distorted. Just look at the final confrontation in Act 4. Carmen dumped Don José months earlier; she is now the official girlfriend of Escamillo. Yet when José shows up, he's still asking her to start a new life with him. He's pretty much deaf to all her repeated denials that she feels anything like love for him. His inability to process that reality is what triggers the violence.
  • He has problems with authority figures. José is ready to abandon Carmen and return to his post in Act 2, but when confronted by his superior officer Zuniga, he snaps and attacks him.
  • He has a dual personality, a Jeckyll and Hyde syndrome. As sweet as sugar with Micaela in Act 1, but when she shows up in Act 3, he gruffly barks at her: "What are YOU doing here?" And when he reluctantly leaves Carmen in that scene to see his dying mother, his parting words, "We shall meet again", are snarled hatefully.
  • Cannot take responsibility for his problems, always blaming others. He calls Carmen a "she-devil" and a "demon", but the cold facts are this: everything bad that happens to him is a result of his poor decisions and impulsiveness.
  • When he gets angry, he turns destructive. You know how the opera ends, right.
Other sources I consulted reveal that misogynistic men tend to gravitate towards groups, organizations or activities dominated by men, display thuggishness and are involved in violent sports. José is in the military in Acts 1 and 2, and in a criminal street-gang in Act 3. His history in pelota takes care of the thuggishness and athletic issues.

All this in no way diminishes the tragic nature of this character; if anything, the tragedy is more profound: Don José and Carmen are like two chemicals that should never come into contact, because an explosion will result. Their respective personality traits doom them once they spot each other; no other outcome is possible than mutual doom.

Next week, we'll put Carmen herself on the psychiatrist's couch! The doctor is IN, BABY!!

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you. Is there a more deplorable character in all of Opera than Don Jose? (probably...)

    For me, Micaela is the biggest loser of all. (Has she been put on Dr Opera's couch yet?) What in the heck could Micaela see in Don Jose that she would chase him down to deliver the letter from his mom? She has an angelic beautiful aria but not a single brain cell. Don Jose is best portrayed by a tenor who is drop dead gorgeous. That is the only way I ever get the connection.

    Appreciate your blog -- (translate: I mostly always agree with you!)