If you haven’t had the opportunity to see a performance at the Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge, you are missing out on a wonderful experience. It is a beautiful space, that is used predominately to attract audiences to see a lineup of notable popular entertainers.
A couple of times a year, CSUN’s theater and music students are provided this attractive stage with all it’s amenities, which gives them not only experience but gives their talent a real opportunity to shine. It goes without saying that it would be wonderful if more opportunity would be granted to these talented young artists who, after all, pay tuition to the school where the performance art center sits. CSUN has both a theater and music program that is excellent with an abundance of talent among its students and professors.
A recent student performance of “Carmen,” held on the VPAC stage, during the Day of the Dead holiday weekend, was very disappointing, however. The CSUN orchestra was as impressive as ever, and the cast performing the favorite opera has much to be proud of. The failing was not with the students but in the concept of placing the famous opera at the U.S./ Mexico border for no apparent reason, as proclaimed in the playbill by Director Maurice Godin, who also used a Dia de los Muertos theme for the opera.
He wrote, “I have set this opera in a small town on the border between Mexico and the United States, but not for any political reasons. I’m interested in the human condition between the individuals in this story, and do not want to muddy them with a blanket statement of politics.” That notion in itself sounds oblivious.
In the production, the cast is smuggled across the border with a reference to human trafficking, avoiding border guards who act more like school crossing guards. There is a large image of Mexico’s most revered and respected patroness, La Virgin de Guadalupe, next to La Malinche throughout the production, intended to represent good girl Micaela vs. complicated bad girl, Carmen.
This, along with a cast wearing makeshift Mexican costumes and phantom of the opera type masks with an attempt to fashion them into calaveras with papel picado decorations reminiscent of a celebration. And at the end of the show, a gigantic calaca (skeleton) puppet who walked on stage, appearing with blazing red eyes at Carmen’s death.
There was no understanding of the deep-rooted indigenous celebration to celebrate loved ones who have passed, instead the Day of the Dead symbols are mere props without understanding of their significance. The images were used more like Angels of Death instead of what Dia de los Muertos is — a celebration of life to honor and remember those who have passed, not this Halloween interpretation.
If this ignorance wasn’t so insulting, and so far off base, it could’ve been comical. While watching it, I was reminded of the outrageous musical, “The Producers.” It was wrong at every turn.
With the esteemed Chicano Studies Department on the CSUN campus, why didn’t it occur to anyone to bother to learn more instead of thinking it was somehow cool to slap such irreverence on stage? Why at no time did anyone tap the Director on the shoulder and question such poor judgement? Compounding the irony, there was a recent CSUN student production,” Juarez: A Mexican Docudrama,”that shared the harsh reality for those who live on the U.S./Mexico border.
This opera, “Carmen,” already known as an Italian art form that takes place in Spain and sung in French, is further denegrated by a mock Mexican border with Carmen’s bullfighter lover, the Virgin, and dancing calacas. What a mess. I’m surprised the director didn’t order a pinata that could’ve been broken open for his finale as part of his “colorful fiesta.” With his approach, I’m willing to bet he considered it.
The talented CSUN students and the audience deserved so much better.