Composer Jack Body on Carmen Rupe - "I was fascinated. And appalled."
“She was scandalous. And also fascinating. But also terrifying. As a gay person I was fascinated, but also appalled…”
Jack Body is laughing as he says this. I’ve asked him what impression he had of Carmen Rupe when he first became aware of her in the early 70s and, clearly, he wasn’t really appalled. Or perhaps just a little.
Body is dapper, soft-spoken, intellectual, witty; a very civilised man. The New Zealand he grew up in was less civilised. In 1944, when he was born, “homosexual activity between men” was punishable by flogging, hard labour or life imprisonment. Homosexual activity between women was not legally acknowledged to exist, and the idea that one could be homosexual, as opposed to someone who “engaged in activities”, was a legal non-starter.
Hence the scandal and the fascination with Carmen, aka Trevor Rupe, the subject of Body’s major new performance piece.She was the first drag queen middle New Zealand found itself unable to ignore. She opened Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge on Vivian St, Wellington, in 1968, and throughout the 70s was one of our great public personalities, a larger-than-life champion of equal rights and civil liberties, exuberantly intolerant of hypocrisy. She threatened to out gay and bisexual politicians. (Rob Muldoon hauled her before the privileges committee.) She ran for mayor of Wellington. (Georgina Beyer cited her as a role model.)
“I’ve always been out, I guess,” says Body. “To myself, to friends. But Carmen was out there. She was outrageous.”
So is Songs and Dances of Desire: In Memoriam Carmen Rupe, a grand celebratory work Body has been incubating since 1991. Three singers. One dancer. A guitar soloist. Full symphony orchestra. Appropriations from Bizet’s Carmen. (“Our Carmen got to see a production in Australia once, and she thought, ‘That’s me… a seductress, a gypsy, a wild woman who had such power over men.’”) Poems from cultures around the world, translated into Maori and Spanish (there will be surtitles). All pulled together in a wicked fusion of cabaret and classical forms, at once a tribute to a celebrated New Zealander and an exploration of desire, power and gender.
“My two women singers sing in low register, and what they’re singing about is very powerful and forceful and terrifying… nothing conventionally feminine. And the man, the counter-tenor, is singing Bizet arias that we are very familiar with, that are normally sung by a female soprano.”
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra sidled up to the idea of performing the piece 10 years ago, but quickly backed away, finding it too ambitious for their budget.
A stripped-down version, Carmen Dances, was performed at Wellington’s International Festival of the Arts in 2002 — just the music, with no dancer.
“When I was invited to be the APO’s composer in residence for this year, I said I’ve got this project which is half done — well, a third done — and I’d like to finish it, but it’s a bit expensive. I’ve got these special singers I’d like to use, and a dancer, and I’d like to bring in a guitar soloist from Japan… it’s probably too much? And they said, ‘No, let’s do it.’ I have to say I feel extraordinarily honoured. A whole programme of my music. I mean you have to be Beethoven or Brahms usually.”
The downstairs area of the Town Hall will be converted to cabaret-style table seating for the performance. Does Body worry such a large venue will lose the intimacy of cabaret? “Jason, our dancer who’s portraying Carmen, will have a catwalk, so he’ll be able to come right out and sit on people’s laps and blow kisses.
“And as to the music…” He laughs. “I don’t think anyone will complain that it doesn’t fill the space.”
Songs and Dances of Desire: In Memoriam Carmen Rupe, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Town Hall, March 8.
First published in Metro, March 2013.