The Real Carlotta

A Few More Comments on this Prima Donna

Marie Miolan-Carvalho and La Carlotta

As far as I can tell, Gaston Leroux never goes too in-depth about Carlotta's character, leaving her up to many interpretations on film and stage. I had wondered myself if she were just an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Most of the time, she is portrayed as a young, attractive woman with a decent enough voice but a large ego and very bad temper. Only once, per Arthur Kopit, had I seen her portrayed as an all-out villainess with little musical talent. Sure, in other versions, she keeps her job because she sleeps with the boss regardless of ability, but this is the only time I can find where she is noticeably older and married to the manager.

It seems Arthur Kopit got it right! According to The Phantom of the Opera by Philip J. Riley, soprano Marie Miolan-Carvalho is the inspiration for Gaston Leroux's La Carlotta. Miolan was married to Léon Carvalho, a manager of a small company known as Théâtre Lyrique. Miolan was getting old and it showed. Even in her youth, her voice had been thin and shrill. No longer able to hide behind her youth and beauty, her husband chose a new opera Faust to revive her career. Notorious for her "iron will and lust for fame," the company yielded to manager's wife so they would not have to deal with her.

Much like a lot of Broadway shows today, opera-comique had spoken dialog for the masses to keep their attention. Faust had originally been written in this style, but Miolan refused the role. She demanded to sing Grand Opera, so Faust had to undergo some rewrites. Ironically, some scenes had to be cut entirely because she quite simply could not sing them. What little talent she had was failing as she got older, and it was apparent to anyone except for her and her ego. She had another duet deleted so she could enter after a waltz scene, which would put herself at the focus of attention instead of having to share the spotlight. An aria for Siebel was also deleted because it exposed the fact that her talented understudy had a better voice than she did!

Arias in the 1990 Television Mini-series

In the Kopit teleplay, Carlotta chooses Bellini's Norma for her debut. The fact that Carlotta does not think she needs rehearsals shows just how large her ego is. From what I've read, the title role for this opera is one of the most difficult for any soprano. A real-life opera star named Lilli Lehman made a comment that singing all three Brünnhildes in Wagner's Der Ring des Niebelungen in one evening was less stressful than one evening with Norma. (Alrighty, I have no clue about Brünnhilde, but that is how she worded it. There is something else for me to research.) When I listened to real opera singers such as Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas bellow out "Sediziose Voci" for the first time, it really dawned on me just how horrible Carlotta sounds. The way I understand it, Norma is a strong character but also beautiful. Think JRR Tolkien's Galadriel from The Fellowship of the Ring or something. Then look at Carlotta's awful performance. She sounds like she swallowed a jackhammer. She treats the notes like they are the cement and her voice is a sledgehammer. Callas and Sutherland by comparison, their voices dance gracefully over these notes in ways I cannot explain.

During the Bistro, Christine sings "Marie's Aria" from Daughter of the Regiment by Donizetti. As I listened to Beverly Sills sing this aria on an online recording, I smiled as I realized just how well Christine sings circles around Carlotta. It became increasingly clear why Carlotta gave Christine such a hostile, hateful look and why Christine has this facial expression almost like, "I'm so busted, but I AM so good! Nyah nyah! Go me!"

Even listening to "The Drinking Song" from La Traviata, I could hear the difference. Compared to real opera singers, Carlotta sounds almost like a gargling jackhammer.

The Bouncing Diva

I read an account about an out-of-control diva. She had become increasingly difficult, spoiled, and self-centered. Everyone grew sick and tired of her, so they played their own practical joke. I could hear Erik now, saying, "Well I would have done that had Carlotta chosen Tosca."

At the end of this very dramatic opera, the title heroine leaps to her death from the castle wall. The singer usually lands safely on some mattresses on the other side. This time, she landed on a trampoline. Visualize the bouncing diva, bouncing up again and again from behind the castle wall. You get the drift. The Prima Donna could not perform this role for the rest of the season, for every time the season ticket holders saw her, they burst out laughing.

Okay, other accounts say she was not out-of-control. It was simply a well-meaning attempt to insure her safety, which backfired. Eva Turner had once said she was that diva and that it happened at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It would have been funny if Erik had the chance to do this to Carlotta just the same.

Review of Dance Movie | Faustian Phantoms | Phuzzy Phantom | Erik's Masks | Real Carlotta | Prima Donna

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