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When I walked out of the bathroom, she was still singing the same tune. She had been singing it on and off for the past several days. The song was now stuck in my head. I loved the song and loved her singing it.

A thought struck me.

“You know what, I just realized something.”

“What?”

“I have started subconsciously associating this song with you. I think that whenever I hear it again, I am going to remember you. It could be someone else singing it, it could be years in the future — I don’t think I can ever hear it without thinking of you.”

“Well, that’s nice.”

She smiled beautifully as I shook my head in only half-mock desperation. There was a long kiss.

She slapped my butt playfully. Her lips pursed. “Off you go,” she said.

I walked out of her apartment and made my way back to mine. Somewhere in the middle, I stopped momentarily to let the song play clearly in my head and felt the association stronger than ever. It was a weird sensation; painfully pleasurable with notes of utter beauty and tragic sadness. But then, I am sure I have been through this with other people before.

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I am always fascinated when the inclusion of a famous song or classical piece in a movie gets it absolutely right. By that I mean that it not only perfectly reflects the mood and meaning of that movie scene but enhances its emotional impact in almost preternatural manner.

Such is the case with Shostakovich’s “Waltz No. 2” in Eyes Wide Shut. I simply can’t get it out my head however much I try. It is such a beautiful piece; flowery, passionate, romantic yet with that indelible tinge of mystery and haunting spookiness. As a theme music for that movie, Stanley Kubrick couldn’t have chosen any better. Enjoy:

What other well known music inclusions for movie soundtracks can you think of that gets it perfect? Off the top of my head, here are a few that give me the chills: “Johnny Came Marching Home” from Dr. Strangelove,  “Hello” from Bitter Moon, “Bang Bang” from Kill Bill, “Girl, You’ll be a Woman” from Pulp Fiction.

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Despite the title, this post is not going to be a complete list but more of a little story.

One day when I came back from a rather stressful day of school and in a really bad mood — I was thirteen at the time — my mom suggested I lie down on my bed, close my eyes and play Mozart’s Piano Concerto 15 on my little cassette player. I did as she said. And that was how it all began.

I discovered Mozart and I have been in love with his music ever since. His genius has helped me tide over so many difficult times.  He has made me laugh in childlike delight on so many occasions. I have occasionally tried to express my gratitude in posts like this and this but I don’t think they really do justice to his greatness.

And it would be wrong not to mention the other composers I have discovered since. Dvorak and his amazing ninth. Beethoven. Bach, Vivaldi, Strauss, Wagner. Tchaikovsky. Copland.

And oh, Bizet! I love Carmen. I could listen to the Habanera all my life. In fact I could watch every performance of Carmen that has ever taken place. I have come to appreciate opera more over the years. This aria from the Marriage of Figaro is magical. It is Mozart after all. But if I have to pick one piece that touches me most intensely — sends tingling sensations through my body and makes me feel part of some indescribable greatness — it would be this miracle. Has there ever been another song as moving? Operas are great. I am going to see one this week — Die Walkure — and the very thought makes me excited.

I cannot say I am anything close to an expert on classical music. I know nothing about the technical aspects of music. I can barely tell keys.  I can’t read. I can neither sing nor play any instrument. But I just love hearing the stuff. It makes me happy. It can make me happier than almost anything else can.

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Below is an abridged translation of the Habanera, currently my favourite song in all of opera.

When will I love you?
Good Lord, I don’t know,
Maybe never, maybe tomorrow.
But not today, that’s for sure.

Love is a rebellious bird
that nobody can tame,
and you call him quite in vain
if it suits him not to come.
Nothing helps, neither threat nor prayer.

The bird you thought you had caught
beat its wings and flew away …
love stays away, you wait and wait;
when least expected, there it is!
All around you, swift, swift,
it comes, goes, then it returns …
you think you hold it fast, it flees
you think you’re free, it holds you fast.

Love is a Bohemian child,
it has never, ever, known law;
If you love me not, then I love you;
If I love you, you’d best beware!

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What’s so special about Carmen?

For one, the truly great music. Carmen is magical melody after magical melody. As for the orchestration, this is what Richard Strauss had to say:

“If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and every rest is in its proper place!”

Carmen also has a great story that is wonderfully presented. As the Wikipedia article points out, Carmen is extremely innovative in its drama: it alternates comic or sentimental scenes found traditionally in opera-comique with stark realism.

Yet, there is something beyond music or drama that lies at the heart of Carmen’s appeal to me. It is easy to distinguish good art; beyond that, things get very personal. The truly special works of art are those with qualities that talk to you, touch you, in ways that separate them fundamentally from others. Obviously, this aspect is highly subjective; this is why  people usually disagree on their favourite movie or piece of music even when they mostly agree on which movie or music is good.

The opera Carmen epitomizes liberty. The character Carmen is relentless in her passion for freedom. She is strong, extremely sexy and gives everything in her relationships with her lovers. However, she can never be possessed or exorcised of her passionate love for self-determination. For Carmen, all true interactions are voluntary and devoid of any notion of ownership of another person or duty to any institution.

Carmen is willing to live life only on her own terms.  As this book correctly points out, Carmen is “brash, vicious and callous”, yet the quality that defines her over and above all this is “her willingness to be Carmen, a determination to be free and follow her own bliss.” Carmen never gives up her “tireless obsession to control her own destiny.” And this extends beyond mere action, it is a fundamental part of her morality. In the final scene, even when Carmen knows that she will die she refuses to compromise on her principles, instead she courageously faces her fate. Her death is not a dessert for her sins but a consequence of her essential nobility in an ignoble world; her refusal to give up her self-ownership to another person.

(Of course, early audiences and critics did not view it the same way. Carmen was universally denounced as a vile, immoral, shockingly offensive creation.  Times have changed — modern audiences would undoubtedly be more sympathetic to my vision of Carmen as a flawed but heroic character murdered by a jealous man who is her moral and emotional inferior. That’s another aspect of all great art, like life they have many contradictory interpretations.)

It is these thematic elements of Carmen that, for me, lift it from a great opera to something far more special. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology, Carmen talks to me in that special way that is both infinitely subtle and passionately stirring. It will forever be a part of my heart.

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As I was watching the opera today, it struck me that there were some remarkable similarities between the character of Carmen and a person I loved a long time ago.

I was thinking of this just now and suddenly remembered that her cellphone ring tone used to be the March of the Toreador. She really liked the ring tone and googled it up one day to see its origin. And that is how both of us heard of Bizet and Carmen for the very first time.

Update: While searching on Youtube, I discovered this very cute video:

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I went to see the LA Opera production of  Carmen today.

What can I say about Carmen that hasn’t been said before? I had been waiting to see it for three years. Too often when your expectations are that high, you end up disappointed. Not so with this one.

It was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. It was the most worthwhile $20 I have ever spent.

When you combine a great story with absolutely magical music you get Carmen. I could of course nitpick. The tenors weren’t that great, Carmen could have been prettier. But the music alone was worth it. Carmen’s voice was fabulous.

And who would have guessed that the opera with the most perfect music ever would also have as its central character a seductive, fiercely independent woman who fears neither heaven nor hell but only believes in freedom and prefers to choose death than compromise on her liberty?

Embedded below are my favourite pieces from Bizet’s masterpiece. Enjoy.




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