I can't believe our new production of Carmen is only one week away. Our Jefferson Center crew loaded in the set this week. Below is the wall of the tavern, the setting for Act 2.
Mounting a new opera production is one of the most complex and challenging, nerve-wracking and exciting enterprises in all of the arts. Visitors to our rehearsals these past two weeks have commented both on the intricacies of choreographing scenes as varied as knife fights and Gypsy dances. In addition to marveling at the multifaceted talents required of opera singers, newcomers to the process are struck by how down to earth and apparently "normal" our cast is. (We both appreciate the compliment of being thought normal, and chuckle amongst ourselves at how abnormal are both the training and subsequent paths of the opera singer lives we variously lead).
Equally of interest to me is the process of watching singers assimilate characters they are debuting. Only our Carmen, Carla Dirlikov, and our Morales, Kevin Grace, have sung their roles prior to this production. And of the 10 principal singers in Carmen, only 4 of them have previously appeared with Opera Roanoke. Carla made her professional debut here in 2005 as Flora in La Traviata (in which I sang Gastone and was associate conductor). Amy Cofield Williamson made her company and role debut in Lucia di Lammermoor under Steven White's baton (immediately following Steven's Met debut in 2010). Our Zuniga and Remendado, Keith Reed and Marshall Rollings (respectively) both debuted with Opera Roanoke earlier this season in Il Trovatore. Marshall was a member of our Young Apprentice Artist program this past fall, and is now the first alumnus of that still new program to return to sing a principal role.
In addition to watching the singers evolve as they put the show "on its feet," we are seeing the set materialize on stage after looking for months at the sketches from our designers, Jimmy Ray and Laurie Ward. Here is the original sketch for Act 2:
Friends and interested audience members are welcome to attend our final staging rehearsals in the Jefferson Center rehearsal hall backstage. We're there today (April 20) from 2-5 and again from 7-10, and we are running through the show tomorrow, April 21 from 3-6:30. If you've never watched a rehearsal for a play, musical or opera, it is an entertaining and enlightening window into this vital and engaging artistic medium.
Program notes on Carmen are a couple of posts below this one, and a more philosophical essay on the soul of Spanish culture, especially in music, dance and the bullfight is just below this post.
In promoting this opera, I have said Carmen is so popular and so powerful because its characters are both larger than life and true to it. Carmen is free-spirited and courageous as she is brazen. She is true to her word and her code. And since her code is not ours, her "otherness" both adds to her allure and makes her dangerous. Wrongly judged as immoral and too easily dismissed as amoral, Carmen maintains her dignity and honor up to and through her tragic death. Don José wins our sympathy with his impassioned singing and romantic sensibility, but dashes our hopes and ruins his life through the "tragic flaws" of his jealousy and unchecked rage. Scorned lovers turned murderers still stimulate the imaginations of our culture through crime dramas and thrillers. And they populate our news media with disturbing regularity. Art imitates life, and it is a multi-purpose tool to teach us about ourselves. The creativity inherent in the imagination is uniquely human and the source of our greatest potential.
One of the most important and unremarked aspects of opera is its ability to evoke the famous dramatic catharsis of emotion. The vicarious experience of identifying with a character and / or being moved by her is unique to theatre and articulated with concentrated force in opera, where word and music, poetry and song, drama and dance all mingle and combine with alchemical magic to touch our hearts and stir our souls. We are not alone in co-opting such lofty speech about our beloved genre and art in general.
The poet and librettist Dana Gioia writes perceptively about opera as a particularly powerful art form, full of "peak moments" of "special lyric...[and] emotional intensity." Though creating characters with broad strokes in bold colors, great opera is full of insight into the human experience. We are moved by Carmen and Don Jose and Micaela and Escamillo because they sing their emotions in a special musical language speech can only approximate or describe. If you've never been to the opera, Carmen is a great place to start the journey. Just ask those of us who live for it.