Australian Health Ministry Got Classic Opera Canceled Over Smoking

Tristyn Bloom Contributor
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The West Australia Opera decided to cancel its performance of Bizet’s much-beloved opera Carmen over concerns that it glamorizes cigarettes and smoking, WA Today reports.

The 140-year-old opera, which was the second-most performed in the world during the 2012-2013 season, follows the story of Carmen, a gypsy working in a tobacco factory in Seville who seduces the naive soldier Don Jose. Its most famous aria is “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” also known as the Habanera, instantly recognizable by its distinctive opening rhythm.

Before the iconic aria, however, is a flirtatious chorus between the “cigarette girls” — gypsies working in the tobacco factory — and the young men watching them.

“Smoke is like the tender words of lovers,” they sing. “Just like smoke, their promises and words fade away.”

This was too much for the managers of the West Australia Opera, who recently received a sponsorship from the West Australian Health Promotion Foundation, a government agency better known as Healthway. According to its website, Healthway “provides sponsorships to Sport, Arts Racing and Community Events organisations and community groups which encourage healthy lifestyles.” (RELATED: Maryland Hospital Bans Employees From Smoking Anywhere On Earth)

WA Opera’s general manager, Carolyn Chard, said Healthway did not pressure her into making the decision, but noted that they entered the partnership agreement “with a great deal of respect.”

“We will avoid any controversy on programming [Carmen] in the next two years while we’ve got a significant partnership with Healthway,” she said. “Sponsorship is so important to arts companies.”

Chard did suggest that the opera house will perform Carmen in the next “three, four, or five years,” once the partnership with Healthway finishes. She said they decided to cancel the performances because of “concerns about glamorizing cigarettes and smoking.” (RELATED: Bloomberg Funds Corrupt Turkish Autocrat In Global War On Smoking)

Healthway’s website says that “any activities or events where tobacco, performance-enhancing drugs, or illegal or illicit drugs are used or promoted…will generally not be funded.”

It goes without saying that the cigarettes smoked onstage are not real.

While Healthway may not have directly pressured the opera house into chucking Carmencita, its chairperson, Rosanna Capolingua, was pleased. “You really have to congratulate them,” she told Radio 6PR. (RELATED: Boko Haram Executes Two People For Smoking Cigarettes)

Not everyone is so happy. Lara Jeffery, director of MyChoice Australia, an anti-nanny state activist group, was disappointed in the tepid response from the arts community.

“Artists no longer give voice to the silenced and powerless, or even pretend to challenge dominant ideas,” she told The Daily Caller. “They have been bought by government grants.” She also explained that “Healthway is a state government organisation that was set up specifically to provide sponsorship to cover the shortfall when tobacco sponsorship was banned.”

That might sound conspiratorial, but it’s completely true: this 1997 study published in the peer reviewed journal Tobacco Control refers to Healthway sponsorships explicitly as “tobacco replacement projects,” which it defines as “sponsorship by Healthway of sport, racing, and arts groups previously supported by tobacco companies.”

“You might expect that when public health and public funding stifles artistic expression, the creative community would rise up and illuminate the silencing of the raw human experience by the powers that be,” Jeffery continued. “Instead they’re patting each other on the back and congratulating themselves for enforcing the government’s will. The meaning of this decision is loud and clear — art is decorative, and what might have been a voice for the powerless has been purchased with taxpayer’s money.”

As MCA pointed out, Australians pay the highest cigarette taxes in the world, while Healthway received over $20 million Australian dollars in taxpayer funding last year (over $17 million in U.S. dollars).

According to Richard Klein, professor emeritus of French literature at Cornell University, Carmen is “the first figure in literature to be identified with cigarettes,” (the opera was based on Prosper Mérimée’s novella of the same name). In his cultural history of cigarettes, Cigarettes Are Sublime, Klein explained that “Carmen’s Seville, it is no accident, was in the 19th century the principal center and probable origin of cigarette making in Europe — a city famous for its immense factory where thousands of women, many young and barely dressed, languorously rolled cigars and manufactured cigarettes in dense heat and the poisoned air of tobacco smells and human sweat, intoxicated by the thick effluvia arising from leaves and bodies and by their own continuous smoking; their skin was dyed to ravishing or ravished shades of nut-brown color by the stain of nicotine.”

Now why would anyone want to see an opera about that?

Tristyn is both a cigarette smoker and a mezzo-soprano, so following her on Twitter will almost compensate for this tragedy.