We are about to enter the annual astrological sun transit of Leo. Leos are the lions. The kings and queens of the forest, the Beyoncé’s of the stage, the divas of the Silver Screen, Leos demand drama and pageantry. Anything less is not worth their time. When I think of pieces that embody the qualities of a Leo, there is only one that stands out as the true diva of all flute works. The Carmen Fantasie always wins over the toughest crowd. Everyone recognizes the tunes from this beloved opera Carmen (even my own grandma!) but the virtuosic variations offer unexpected fireworks showing off fantastic finger-work. And yet there is much more to the Carmen Fantasie than impressive runs. In today’s blog, I will be discussing various approaches to preparing this flute staple as part of the next installment of my Practice Blueprints series. Although you will be required to assume the role of the diva as well as the virtuoso, it is important to always remember that there is a storyline silently shaping the notes on the page. You are now part of the play. You are the star of the show. Own it!
First Thing’s First; Watch the Opera. The Carmen Fantasie is based on melodies taken from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. Most of us have heard the Habanera at one time or another but have you ever sat down and watched the entire opera (with subtitles)? Do you know what the story is about? Do you know what the characters are singing about or even who they are? To truly understand how to play the Carmen Fantasie, you must first understand the story of Carmen. Read the libretto but also check out YouTube clips from some of the best productions of the opera. My personal favorite performances of the Habanera are listed below! These two performances truly embody the character of Carmen. Keep these in mind when performing the variations to maintain the style of the aria amidst the technical demands of the music.
https://youtu.be/uV9iGv4sKNI – Julia Migenes-Johnson, Film
https://youtu.be/KJ_HHRJf0xg – Anna Caterina Antonacci, The Royal Opera
Of course, the best way to experience Carmen is by attending a live performance. Research offerings of at local opera houses. Carmen is a very popular opera and hosted by numerous opera companies throughout the world. Attend!
Along these same lines, sing through the melodies. There are several moments in the Carmen Fantasie that feature melodies taken nearly verbatim from the opera. After watching a performance of the opera, sing the arias in your head as you play the melodies in the score. If the words are difficult for you to understand due to language barriers, make up your own! If there are no words present in the original score (for example, the opening melody is an instrumental theme from the opera), make up words to fit the mood of the excerpt. Be creative! You are the prima donna now. Finally, remember to project! The mezzo forte, for example, before Rehearsal 46 is clearly not fitting for such a powerful low register melody. Belt it out! Give your listeners goosebumps by digging into the depths of the sound and the heartache of the story.
Be conscious of register jumps. François Borne created breathtaking variations by using several octave displacements. This essentially means that you will find numerous lines that jump quickly from the lowest of the low the highest of the high. You must maintain a flexible embouchure throughout these variations and be extra careful not to skim the second note of an octave jump. For example, at the key change following Rehearsal 233, it is very easy to mask the octave jumps beginning on the low G, A, B, and A respectively. To counteract this, make sure to add a clear accent to the lowest note to bring this tone out of the texture. These notes act as pedal tones for the variations in the higher octaves and require a bit more weight to anchor the melody to the musical foreground. Finally, to strengthen embouchure flexibility, add flexibility warm-ups to your daily practice routine. Trevor Wye includes some very effective exercises in his Practice Book on Tone but Taffanel and Gaubert Exercise #10 is also a good alternative for a bit of variety.
Practice your arpeggios! Many of the variations in this work are based on broken chords (which is the most common way for composers to vary a melody). What this means for the performer is that we must be comfortable and proficient with our arpeggios to execute the fireworks of the phrase properly. A good example of this writing can be found at the Moderato before Rehearsal 73 where a series of scales and arpeggios vary the melody set forth in the first 4 measures of the passage. Practice this work in conjunction with Taffanel and Gaubert’s Exercise #12 (which covers all those pesky arpeggios).
Use breath kicks to prevent Wild Fingers. This piece is very exciting and most passages fit exceptionally well under the fingers. For these reasons, it is easy to rush easier passages and fly recklessly through more difficult runs. Before you know it, you are several beats ahead of your accompanists who is struggling to hear downbeat placements (or really any type of beat placement period). Dial it back a bit by adding breath kicks (small accents or slight additions of vibrato) on tones falling on critical downbeats in a phrase. For example, the Presto following Rehearsal 338 is a notorious place for crash and burn opportunities due to Wild Fingers. Adding breath kicks, particularly at Rehearsal 343, will keep your beat in check and the phrases clearly distinguishable to your audience.
How do you like to practice the Carmen Fantasie? What sections of this work do you find particularly challenging? What tips do you find most effective? Do you have any other approaches to learning this work that you find valuable? Please comment below.
Happy Fluting to all you Divas out there!