Micha Hamel on his opera Caruso a Cuba: ‘Caruso is trapped in his star status’

(c) Petrovsky & Ramone, Origithing Photography

It all started at a book market during a holiday in Berlin, with the book Wo Aida Caruso fand. This German translation of Como un mensajero tuyo (As Your Messenger) of the Cuban author Mayra Montero at once triggered Micha Hamel’s interest: ‘The title made my antenna crackle. It was clever of the publisher not to choose a literal translation but to refer to the main characters: the historical figure Caruso and the opera heroine Aida’. Hamel read the book in one go and decided to turn it into an opera, Caruso a Cuba. It will be premiered on Sunday 3 March as part of the Opera Forward Festival, Otto Tausk conducting the Nederlands Kamerorkest.

The libretto starts from a historical fact – the bomb that exploded in the theatre of Havana while Caruso sang the role of Radamès in Aida in 1920 – the rest is fiction. ‘I had been talking to Pierre Audi for quite some time about a new production and now I knew: this story is an opera. Love and fate are the themes, it’s about opera and plays in an opera house.’ Hamel decided to deepen his bond with the opera tradition and at the same time write a work about unfulfilled love. ‘A difficult subject, which I have never worked out before in music theatre.’

Belcanto

From a very young age Hamel was inspired by the love for the belcanto of composers such as Verdi and Puccini: ‘My parents played a lot of recordings of opera, and I started composing after seeing the film Amadeus, I was fourteen years old. When the new venue of the Dutch National Opera opened I immediately took out a subscription. I visited all productions, until I went to study at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.’ Thanks to a Neapolitan lover he also learned to speak Italian fluently, the language of the libretto, which he wrote himself.

Act of love

The spirit of Verdi and Puccini can be heard in the score: ‘Without imitating I try to make my music sound as I hear theirs. Composing is always an act of love, an homage to the existing body of music that mankind has developed. For example, the orchestra plays a few bars from the Aida overture when the performance begins, and via audio fragments we twice hear the real Caruso as Radamès. There are also some style quotations, but with their own, contemporary colours.’

Musically, Hamel follows the story closely: ‘The protagonist Enrico Caruso arrives in Havana majestically and confidently, intent on shining as a star there. Towards the end he is completely wrecked and disillusioned, abandoned by all and every. My music starts melodiously and traditionally, but ends in grim atmospheres, with atonal fragments and radio noise.’

Baritonal tenor

The voice of Caruso still attracts admiration, also from Micha Hamel. ‘He does not really sound like a tenor but full and broad, also in the higher registers, more like a baritone. In his early years he even had trouble with the high notes, but when he mastered them technically, his career went fast. He always sings from the character, with small glissandi, sobs, accelerations and decelerations that logically sprout from the meaning of music and text, from what his character feels at that particular moment.’

In the tenor Airam Hernandez Hamel has found the ideal Caruso. ‘That role is quite a challenge because of the gigantic reputation of the historical Enrico Caruso. Also in terms of physical and appearance, the singer must be able to carry the role. As soon as I heard Hernandez sing I adapted my first sketches and I sculpted the rest of the part to his possibilities. He seems to love high notes, I love that.’

Doomed love

Hamel himself considers his chamber opera as one spun-out duet between Caruso and Aida. Their doomed love forms the dramatic core, around which the other figures circle. Aida’s mother and her godfather, the priest Calazán, try to turn fate away with rituals from their Lukumi religion. They represent the spiritual dimension. At some more distance there is Caruso’s manager Zirato, who also tries to protect him from evil.’

‘Caruso’s tragedy is that he is a world star, and is trapped in this role. He has no choice but to sing and earn money. He is obsessed with himself, he is the hero of his own life story. The explosion of the bomb may serve as a liberation: he escapes from his life and finds a great love. At the same time, raw reality knocks at the door: the mafia, his ailing health, the fact that he is married, even though his wife lives in New York.’

Caruso disrupts relationships

‘Aida’s tragedy is that she feels Caruso is her great love, but has to release him because he must return to New York. Spurred on by her love she helps him escape from the mafia, but at the same time she helps him escape Cuba – and her. She carries his child, but knows there will never be another man in her life. In a metaphorical sense, Caruso himself is a bomb: wherever he goes, he disrupts personal relationships. In this I see a similarity with Pasolini’s Teorema, in which the human is treated as a primal force that confronts us with our insignificance.’

‘It remains unclear whether the story actually takes place, or only in Caruso’s feverish dreams, floating between life and death. The opera is told from his perspective, his head is full of memories. When he sings we often hear a Neapolitan mandolin, as a melancholic touch. Moreover, an out of tune piano sounds. This reminds him of his youth, but also of the rehearsal room when praciticing an opera role.’

Death in Naples

Hamel once uses an Aida trumpetthe instrument Verdi had especially built for the triumphal march of this opera. It sounds during the ritual in which Caruso is immersed in a lagoon, to alleviate the chaos that his presence in Havana has created. Hamel:  ‘This forms the centre of the piece: in a vision Caruso sees his hometown of Naples; Calazán foresees that Caruso will die there – the latter is also historical.’

Towards the end of the opera, more and more noises creep into the sound image, via percussion and electronic soundscapes. ‘At a certain point there are no longer any stable chords, everything seems to happen randomly and accidentally. Rhythms get stuck, chords only consist of two notes. Caruso a Cuba ends with a high whistling tone. Perhaps this depicts the screaming sound of the falling bomb that Caruso relives in his head, or the tinnitus that the explosion gave him. Tinnitus, the death sentence of every musician…’

Caruso a Cuba runs from 3-9 March, info and tickets here.

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About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht' in 2018.
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