Hip Hopera: Carmen

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Drawn in by the seeming absurdity of recasting Bizet's classic opera of Spain as a vehicle for commercial hiphop set in the 'hood, I was prepared to watch just long enough to get a good laugh...

Beyonce Knowles and Destiny's Child, Mekhi Phifer, Mos Def

Reviewed by Lindsey Eck

Tuesday, May 22 2001, 11:15 AM

Drawn in by the seeming absurdity of recasting Bizet's classic opera of Spain as a vehicle for commercial hiphop set in the 'hood, I was prepared to watch just long enough to get a good laugh, then hit the remote. Instead I found myself drawn in by strong acting and production values and by the surprising realization that rap is well suited for extrapolation to the excessive scale and melodramatic stories of opera.

To be sure, Hip Hopera: Carmen borrows only the gross plot outline and a few Bizetian riffs (set to a hiphop beat) from the original, transporting the action from 19th-century Spain to contemporary Philadelphia and Hollywood. In place of the stereotypical tropes of the gypsy dancer and glamorous toreador are the equally stereotypical figures of the hiphop diva aspiring to Hollywood and the glamorous rap star, with a supporting cast of gangsta-style corrupt cops and other young toughs straight out of blaxploitation movies. Rather than being offensive, though, these icons succeed as the overwrought, overplayed figures of opera. That is, Hip Hopera: Carmen gets a pass on being melodramatic and ethnically insensitive because Bizet's Carmen is all that.

As the eponymous diva, Beyonce Knowles bears much of the credit for making the 'hip hopera' a success. Carmen is seducer, betrayer, femme fatale, but also a loyal friend, capable of true love, and talented beyond her youth. Such a role would be demanding on stage but the closeup nature of the rock-video format heightens the diva's every expression and gesture. Knowles proves up to the challenge. Avoiding the temptation to hype the role, she plays it convincingly and smoothly shifts from dialogue to rap without breaking character. Other performances were likewise strong, certainly more typical of Hollywood production values than the obnoxious posturing one expects from MTV.

The corrupt demimonde of cops on the take and the backstage violence of hiphop hangers-on provide a medium for the blood and vengeance that are the stuff of operas generally and Carmen in particular. Having one of the male romantic leads be a rap star gave further excuse for costume and spectacle (and a welcome contrast from the drab South Philly 'hood) while allowing music to work naturally into the action.

Whereas traditional opera's florid arias leave relatively little room for lyrics that advance the story, the hiphop format allows for soliloquies and rhymed dialogue that give considerable plot information without lapsing into the rhythmic monotony of the "story song." Hence, it appears the producers are onto something: the assembly of raps into the longer framework of an "opera" not only can succeed, but may represent a logical next step for rhymers with bigger ambitions than the next Top 40 hit. In contrast to a true opera, Hip Hopera: Carmen intersperses musical numbers with scenes of ordinary dialogue (more in the fashion of a "musical" than an "opera." These dialogues were more frequent in later scenes, perhaps to the point of distraction from the overweening musical idea.

Let's be serious. Hip Hopera: Carmen is a commercial work of pop culture that relies on hackneyed blaxploitation motifs to update its borrowed plot. At the same time, it is a surprisingly entertaining and innovative take on what opera might look like in the 21st century. MTV is to be commended for thinking outside the 4-minute video format and challenging its viewers with a radical (if commercial) take on a revered classic.

Hip Hopera is an MTV Production, which preimiered on May 7th, 2001 

Copyright © 2001 by Lindsey Eck. All rights reserved.

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