After opening its season in the wintry Paris of "La Boheme," Opera Carolina will let its audiences thaw out under the blazing Spanish sun of "Carmen."
Like "Boheme," "Carmen" sits high in opera's Top 10. Both stories are driven by quick-burning love affairs reflected in seductive music. At both operas' conclusions, their heroines are lying dead.
Don't confuse fragile, ailing Mimi with Carmen, though. Mimi can draw audiences' tears; Carmen isn't looking for pity from anyone. All she needs is her freedom - including the freedom to love whomever she wants.
"She knows who she is, and she's not afraid to be that 100 percent of the time," says Kirstin Chavez, who will play the role for Opera Carolina.
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"We don't run into people like her on the street every day. That's why she's so interesting to us."
Opera Carolina, in something of a package deal with companies in New Jersey and Baltimore, is taking a fresh look at "Carmen." Here's a preview:
New setting: Stage director Bernard Uzan has brought back an approach to "Carmen" he used with several opera companies in the 1990s. He says many sets that aim for literal depictions of the story's locations - a plaza in Act 1, a tavern in Act 2, and so on - are clumsy about it, and distract attention from the characters and their passions.
"I love tradition," Uzan says, "but not when it's ridiculous."
So Uzan dispenses with the traditional settings. His "Carmen" plays out entirely in a bullring. The chorus looks down from the grandstand.
"To me, the bullfight symbolizes the spirit of Spain," Uzan says. He also says this will focus the audience's attention where it belongs.
"The arena pushes us to concentrate on the drama between the characters," Uzan says. "That's what 'Carmen' is about."
New Carmen: Denyce Graves, one of the most magnetic Carmens of recent years, was originally slated to star for Opera Carolina and the other groups. But Graves bowed out because of a "temporary health challenge," as she described it in a statement. Chavez, who has played Carmen with more than 20 companies in the United States and Europe, has stepped in.
Though Carmen falls in and out of love when she likes - first with the soldier Don Jose, then with the bullfighter Escamillo - performers who portray her as just a loose woman are mistaken, Chavez says. She sticks with a man "until it's over," Chavez says, "just as people today would do."
The tragedy, Chavez adds, is that this ends up costing her life.
Death wish? The opera climaxes with a confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose, whom she has dropped in favor of Escamillo. When the scene unfolds the standard way, Don Jose stabs her after she scoffs at his plea to come back to him. But some directors look at it differently.
They think Carmen is eager for the fate foretold in a fortune-telling scene: "Death!" When the director and cast interpret the story this way, Carmen ultimately takes control - maybe hurling herself at Jose's knife. So part of the impact of "Carmen" nowadays comes from which way this plays out. Be on the lookout.