Victor Borge, classical music's classic funny man, may be going straight.
Well, sort of.
The comedian extraordinaire , famous for bringing us his "Humor With Music" show for more than 40 years, will conduct his own version of Bizet's "Carmen" tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, on Friday at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara and on Saturday at El Camino College in Los Angeles County.
Borge insists that it will be a serious performance. Well, mostly.
"This is not going to be a boring evening," Borge said in a recent telephone interview from Washington. "But it's not going to be a circus either. There will be some laughter, but not at the expense of the opera. Then it becomes mockery.
"This (staging of Carmen) is for people who are afraid of opera. I will have to be the Pavarotti, in a way."
Borge's pared-down version--there will be no sets--will use costumed singers, a chorus, dancers and an orchestra of approximately 50 musicians. The orchestra, too, will be on stage, with the singers on an extra platform behind the musicians. "It becomes part of the spectacle," Borge explained.
The work will be sung in the original French. "Otherwise, there would be no reason for me to narrate it," Borge said. "Well, it was written in French. Besides, you can't understand it even if they do sing in English. They repeat one sentence for 15 minutes. When I speak it, it will be only one sentence. So the audience doesn't have to wait."
The performances will consist of the high points of the opera--what he called "all the major interesting music, melodically and dramatically important. Any in-between scenes, I will tell the audience. In a fully staged opera, there are a lot of minutes which even for a music lover are unnecessary. In fact, I take out an hour out (of the score)."
Borge would like to think of the performances as "inviting the audience into my living room. They will be part of the thing."
"I think this is very, very excellent format. Not because I do it. Anybody can do it. It's just a format that can be very interesting, instead of a concert version. That means singers come in dressed in black and white-tie and evening gowns. They stand there with their arms held straight, like having their arms tied. The illusion is gone. We just look at the people who don't at all look like what they represent to be.
"When they do it in opera, they have costumes, set, the whole thing. They act. They are free with their arms."
Borge, 78, said that he has wanted to conduct opera since childhood "because I grew up in opera." (He began conducting opera in 1978 with a performance of Mozart's "Magic Flute." His "Carmen" dates from 1984.)
"My father was in the orchestra in Copenhagen, and I attended many rehearsals. In opera, all facets of the live arts are represented from painting to singing, music, anything that live art has to offer. Everything is represented that can be done by human beings.
"The great moments to me are actually when you get to the opera house, the first seconds before the lights dim," he said. "From then on, it's in the hands of the conductor. This has fascinated me and a lot of people with the theater. Opera, I think, is the greatest toil for any conductor."
The comedian said he chose "Carmen" because "the music is acceptable to a large, general audience. It is music that doesn't have to be explained."
Borge prefers to describe his staging of the opera as a "storybook reading."
"I'm trying to get away from the word 'opera,' " he explained. "I hate the word. But you can't call 'Carmen' an operetta, no matter what you do with it. I haven't got the right word yet. Let us call it a 'spectacle.' "
Beyond fulfilling his own childhood dreams, Borge said he has other, very serious purposes in mind with these performances.
"We have great young singers in this country," he said. "Since there is no attention paid on the part of the media, or very little, compared to sports, crimes and scandals, this is also a window for them to be seen and to be featured."
Borge's cast will include soprano Wendy White as Carmen, tenor Stephen Plummer as Don Jose, soprano Stephanie Conte as Micaela and baritone Nicolas Karousatos as Escamillo. Lola Montez and her Spanish dancers also will be part of the production.
Ultimately, Borge said, he would like to change the traditional format of concerts "in order to bring opera down to earth, to be accepted as an entertainment."
"Maybe not like baseball or football or things like that," he said, "but we must bring opera to the public so that they will understand it and not fear it, and enjoy it.
"The orchestras have suffered from traditional formats, and they're giving up. There's not enough money; people are not coming. One of the few things that keep orchestras going are the popular things--which proves there is a great market for the entertainment itself. Maybe this format will do the same thing for the opera.
"If it works, well, maybe others will do it and change the tradition where you have to go to the Metropolitan Opera just because 'Spaghetti' is singing," he said.
Those lofty aims aside, Borge admitted, "I do it strictly for my own enjoyment. I want to share the enjoyment of being there with the music.
"I just hope my format and my presence will make it an enjoyable evening."