"My dear Carmen, I would have killed you in the first act, but I wanted to sing my aria..."
And so it is with the beloved Carmen, the operatic tale of the gypsy cigarette factory worker caught in a devastating love triangle before finally meeting her tragic end. It's an opera of epic proportions, one of the world's most popular--and it's Tulsa Opera's late winter production opening this weekend.
Carmen is set in Seville, Spain, circa 1830. The opera's composer, Georges Bizet was a Frenchman who read a book by the same name and became enticed by the idea of Spanish culture and customs, himself possessed of Basque ancestry.
At that time, all of Europe seemed intrigued by Spain, and Bizet set about to write music that would invoke Spanish style and tell the story of Carmen.
The opera, as many know, was a huge flop when it premiered in Paris. Critics found it too vulgar, too outlandish. Bizet retreated into solitude and died three months later.
Shortly after his death, Carmen was revived at the State Opera House in Vienna by Bizet's close friend Ernest Guiraud and met with resounding success. And since then, the opera has remained one of the best known and best loved in the world.
Even Russian composer Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky was quoted as saying, "Carmen is a masterpiece in every sense of the word; that is to say, one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of the whole musical epoch... I am convinced in 10 years Carmen will be the most popular opera in the whole world."
In short, Carmen is about love, sex, violence and murder.
Tell Us If You've Heard The Story . . .
Carmen has been arrested for attacking a co-worker at the Seville Cigarette Factory but charms the soldier who has arrested her, Don Jose, into freeing her. He is imprisoned for that.
Once he is free, he meets Carmen at a local inn, and she attempts to entice him from the army and convince him to run away with her. He is confronted by his officer, Zuniga, who has also come to woo Carmen.
Don Jose battles Zuniga and then decides he has no choice but to flee with Carmen to the mountains. Soon, Carmen is wary of Don Jose and becomes attracted to a bullfighter called Escamillo. While in the mountains, a nice country girl finds Don Jose and bids him come back to Seville to see hid dying mother.
He does, and in his absence, Carmen becomes Escamillo's lover. Don Jose finds out, and in a desperate and jealous rage, he kills Carmen.
Sorry if I spoiled the ending for you, but in all honesty, if you didn't already know, you would have caught on pretty quickly.
It is a tragedy, after all.
But the opera isn't about surprise endings. It's about the music and the timelessness of the tale, and nearly everyone involved in Tulsa Opera's production of Carmen told me it's the perfect starter opera for those who are new to the art form.
"Even if you don't go to the opera all that much or have never been to the opera, you'll recognize a lot of the tunes," said Kostis Protopapas, conductor and concertmaster for Carmen. "It's accessible. You can love the music without having a lot of classical training."
Protopapas and the other cast and crew involved with the opera gave me a sort of insider's view to the making of an opera. It's not as simple as some may imagine. It doesn't come prepackaged and ready to go.
In fact, Tulsa Opera has been working on this opera for more than three years, when director Carol I. Crawford began looking for just the right singers to perform.
Much of the planning for this opera has been in the works long before the singers even arrived in Tulsa, at the beginning of February. In fact, strangely enough, actual rehearsal time seems to be the least of Tulsa Opera's worries. For an opera that has been years in the making, rehearsal time has been less than a month.
Crawford was approaching singers more than a year ago, about the same time Director of Production, Noah Spiegel, began arranging for costumes, which are a special treat in and of themselves.
The costumes are designed by famed opera costumer John Lehmeyer. Spiegel explained that there is a costume shop in Baltimore that houses all of Lehmeyer's costumes, some of which Tulsa Opera has presented on stage before.
Spiegel called the shop and asked if there were any Carmen costumes, and the shop owners said there were, but they weren't finished. Lehmeyer had designed and begun building a set of Carmen costumes, but he died unexpectedly before they were ever finished.
Spiegel said he and Crawford both begged and pleaded for the costumes to be finished and presented in Tulsa Opera's production, and finally, the shop relented. The shop finished the costumes, building them to Tulsa Opera's singers' svelte specifications, and our company will be the first to present them on stage.
"Not many regional companies will have brand new costumes for a production like this, and we're very lucky," said Spiegel. "When all is said and done, the costumes themselves, the whole package, will be worth more than $250,000. We're not paying that much, but we will be helping the costume shop rent the package to other companies so they can recoup that considerable investment.
"The bottom line is that our production will look more sumptuous and the production values will be higher because we have these gorgeous, gorgeous costumes. If we were a French clothing company, they would be called couture."
Oooh, La La!
Carmen's director, Elise Sandell, is making her debut as a director, and she too began working on the production more than a year ago when she began planning in her head and on paper what the scenes would look like.
"Most of the time, the plan I make for how I'm going to stage it doesn't work out exactly as I planned, especially with this cast because they're all so intelligent and they know their parts and this piece very well.
"And so I'm trying to go with their instincts in a lot of cases, so what I spent months and months planning at my desk all of a sudden turns out to be totally different. What's great is I'm actually happy with the result."
The principal singers came to Tulsa and began rehearsing at the beginning of February, leaving them less than a month to stage the opera. They spend months, however, learning their parts -- not just the notes and melodies, but getting the roles in their voices, their bodies -- and when they arrive in Tulsa, they all come together to, amazingly, stage the opera in a very short period of time.
Between the principals, chorus, children's chorus and supernumeraries (extras who don't sing or speak), there may be up to 86 people on the stage at any time. But the extravagance of the opera is what Sandell loves most about it, and what has made her debut as a director an interesting one.
"My favorite thing about Carmen is the scale of it," she said. "It's almost epic in its complexity. There are so many fantastic elements that come together that it's really my favorite thing about it, but it's also the most difficult thing about it."
On top of the 86 singers and extras, there are also 47 musicians in the orchestra, 30 stagehands, 3 stage managers, one children's assistant, a conductor, a principal voice coach, an assistant voice coach, a director, an assistant director, a choreographer and a fight choreographer. All together, more than 175 people have a part in this production.
The essential element to Carmen, of course, is the music, and Protopapas began hiring musicians, all of whom come from the greater Tulsa area, and cutting the orchestra parts to meet Tulsa Opera's specifications months ago.
Members of the orchestra took the time to learn their parts before rehearsals began, and the first two rehearsals allowed the orchestra to learn to play the music together before rehearsing it with the singers twice more.
The final two rehearsals are the dress rehearsals, where the entire cast and company performs the piece in its entirety, as they would if it were an actual performance.
That seems like a short amount of time for a 47-piece orchestra to learn an almost three-hour opera, but Protopapas said it's actually more than most companies Tulsa Opera's size give their orchestras.
"Most members of the orchestra don't have to learn it from scratch," he said. "It's about learning this interpretation of it."
After years and months and weeks of planning and practice, Tulsa Opera will present Carmen this Sat., Feb. 24 and Fri., Mar. 2 at 7:30pm in the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa PAC, 2nd and Cincinnati.
The final performance will be Sun., Mar. 4 at 2:30pm.
Said Spiegel, "One of the things that makes Carmen so special is that it is a spectacle. It is so big. We call it big, messy opera. There's always something going on, something to look at. I think the only thing we don't have is pyrotechnics."
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