Using Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s live rendition of the classic Habanera from Carmen as an anecdotal point of departure, we asked ourselves if the divide between opera and pop music is as definitive as many would have us believe. And if Mozart – whose Die Zauberflöte is currently on the bill at the Opéra Bastille – was himself a pop composer? We put the question to Agnès Gayraud, the philosopher and lead singer of the group La Féline who has penned a fascinating essay on the subject – Dialectic of Pop, published by Éditions La Découverte.
Carmen and Die Zauberflöte count among the most popular operas in the repertoire, however, in your essay Dialectic of Pop, you evoke the difference between “popular music” and “pop music”. Can you elaborate on that distinction for us?
In the 1990s, Kurt Cobain gave a rendition of Habanera from Carmen in concert. Indeed, he is not not the only one to have appropriated that legendary musical piece: Beyoncé, Stromae and Lana Del Rey have all done so too. What incentive does pop have in appropriating pieces from the opera repertoire?
Isn’t it also a subversive gesture, a sort of revenge on opera which can represent an intimidating form of culture?
Should we believe that this “utopia of popularity”, or this “ideal of the hit” which guides the creative process of pop, has already guided some opera composers?
A.G.: Yes, in an aria like habanera from Carmen, I find as much. I
think it is clear that Bizet wanted to compose music that would instantly charm
his audience without having to sacrifice rigorous artistic standards and was
distressed by his opera’s initial lack of success—even though that success would
come later. One can detect a typically pop appeal value that Carmen herself
represents within the fiction, her name evoking both enchantment and song.