Carmen was first performed in 1875 at the Opéra-Comique theatre in Paris, a venue known primarily for family-friendly entertainment. Bizet’s opera, however, was a dramatic departure from that kind of theatre: it featured overtly sexual themes and imagery, morally ambiguous characters, a story that ends with murder, and a female protagonist who proudly defies the social norms and moral codes of her times in favour of a spirited (and, to many of the conservative-minded patrons in the audience, morally suspect) commitment to self-determination. The opera’s content sparked outrage and harsh criticism among the press; the theatre even resorted to giving tickets away for free just to fill the house. Bizet died within three months of the failed premiere, at only 36 years old.
According to Operabase, an online repository for opera performance information and statistics, only Verdi’s La Traviata is staged more often than Carmen in today’s opera houses. It has been adapted and reinterpreted in various forms, including some 10 film versions, a Broadway musical (Carmen Jones), a TV-movie in the early 2000s starring Beyoncé (Carmen: A Hip Hopera), and even an ice-dancing show. Queen Victoria, James Joyce, Otto von Bismarck, and Friedrich Nietzsche all considered Carmen their favourite opera, and it features in novels by Thomas Mann and Vladimir Nabokov. Its music has been thoroughly absorbed by popular culture, frequently sampled in ads, movies, TV shows, and cartoons.
"Your Carmen is a flop, a disaster! It will never play more than 20 times. The music goes on and on. It never stops. There’s not even time to applaud. That’s not music! And your play—that’s not a play! A man meets a woman. He finds her pretty. That’s the first act. He loves her, she loves him. That’s the second act. She doesn’t love him anymore. That’s the third act. He kills her. That’s the fourth! And you call that a play? It’s a crime, do you hear me, a crime!"
—One of the many negative reactions that initially greeted Carmen, this one from Jean-Henri Dupin’s letter to his friend and Carmen librettist Henri Meilhac, delivered the morning after the premiere.
Carmen is a seductive, freedom-loving woman, desired by many. She takes Don José, a young soldier, as her latest lover, who defects from the army to join her in her smuggling life. But when she loses interest and begins a relationship with the exciting toreador Escamillo, Don José cannot accept her rejection. Their final encounter, outside the bull ring, ends tragically when Don José stabs her to death.
In terms of its form, Bizet’s opera is a fairly conventional example of the opéra comique genre, structured around arias, duets, ensembles, and spoken dialogue (unlike its contemporary counterpart grand opera, opéra comique was unique for including spoken—rather than sung—speech). Though Bizet adhered closely to structural conventions, his prodigious talents as a melody-maker are on display throughout the score, giving us some of music history’s greatest hits. Moreover, in Carmen, according to musicologists Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, we witness “Bizet’s greatest gift [which was] to imagine the music for every element of the plot with equal seriousness: the trivial, ornamental characters, the tragic proletarian soldier, the smugglers singing in close harmony, the swaggering exhibitionist, the generic supporting roles; he pays close attention to each and every one.”*
Bizet’s opera is, to a certain extent, an example of 19th-century European Exoticism, an artistic trend which depicted—in often highly problematic, patronizing ways—the people and places of “the East,” be it Asia, North Africa, the Middle East or, as in the case of Carmen, the “exotic” gypsy population of Spain. In Bizet’s rendition, the Spanish setting is at once bright and colourful, full of vitalizing energy, but also dangerous, violent, and gritty
Carmen is unique in that so much of its music occurs within the drama as musical performance, as opposed to the naturalized forms of emotional reflection or soliloquy we might be used to in opera. For example, when Carmen sings and dances the Habañera in Act I, she is actually singing and dancing for the entertainment of the characters on stage. Escamillo, the dashing toreador, performs his triumphant song for the onlookers at the city square in the same vein, with his singing recognized as a musical performance by the logic of the opera.
This COC production of Carmen is being updated by Toronto director Joel Ivany, artistic head of the indie theatre company, Against the Grain Theatre, known for unconventional stagings, including productions in a bar (La Bohème), a university attic space (The Turn of the Screw), a wedding venue (The Marriage of Figaro), and—coming up this May—a CBC TV studio (A Little Too Cozy). With Carmen, Ivany’s approach focuses on the highly relatable characters and dramatic situations of the opera. He also expands the performance space into the entirety of the auditorium—as opposed to only the stage—to create a heightened sense of immersion and proximity to the drama for the audience.
This production of Carmen transports the story to 1940s Latin America, utilizing a vibrant background and gritty atmosphere ideal for the opera’s storyline. The main set features a small-town square in Act I, with crumbling plastered walls painted with graffiti and covered with peeling posters. Act II sets the scene at an outdoor tavern. It’s shabby but there is no shortage of drinking and dancing, enlivened by the presence of the band of smugglers. The smugglers in Act III loiter in the ruins of a church in the mountains, and the Act IV finale takes place in a more unglamorous part of the bullfight arena, in the hallways under the seats.
The costumes, by François St-Aubin, are colourful and range from the simple dresses of the cigar factory workers in Act I to the party wardrobe of those attending the bullfight in the final act. Escamillo, the narcissistic bullfighter, is outfitted like a rockstar of the era, and the women in his entourage channel—or attempt to channel—Hollywood glamour. The men of the town wear traditional wide-legged pants and summer shirts. The factory workers combine peasant tops, with scoop necklines and short sleeves, with multi-coloured skirts and wedge shoes. Micaëla stands out from the group. As a young and innocent woman from a rural village, she wears more traditional and modest clothes with a shawl over her head.
● Has performed Carmen at the world’s leading opera houses including La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco, and Berlin
● “With her smoldering, earthy sexuality she is ideal for the role, managing to seem untamed, almost unhinged at times, yet also coolly calculating.” (New York Times)
● Makes her COC debut and is slated to perform Carmen in the near future with the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Opera Bastille in Paris
● “Margaine’s voice is rich along its entire spectrum, from a searing top to a sultry lower register, with a middle that can be fiery and smoldering or silken, tender and warm.” (Opera News)
Carmen is on stage at the Four Seasons Centre from April 12 - May 15, 2016. To buy tickets, visit coc.ca/tickets
*Abbate, Carolyn and Roger Parker. A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years. London: Penguin Books, 2012
Photo Credits (top - bottom): Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen in Carmen (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper; Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and David Pomeroy as Don José in Carmen (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper; Russell Thomas as Don José and Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen in Carmen (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper; A scene from Carmen (COC, 2016), photo: Gary Beechey.
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Some of us can't wait to leave our high school memories behind us, but that certainly wasn't the case for Ensemble Studio tenor Charles Sy when he reunited with his alma mater, Cawthra Park Secondary School, this March Break in a special performance in the COC's Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.
Before Charles embarked on his career as a professional opera singer, he was a member of Cawthra Park Chamber Choir. "Cawthra Park was when the classical music seed was inserted into my brain and my love for the genre grew exponentially while I was there," says Charles. The acclaimed choir (just one of 12 music ensembles at Cawthra Park, which is home to one of the Peel District School Board’s Regional Arts Programs), led by conductor Bob Anderson, performed in the Free Concert Series on March 17.
Charles was eager to reunite with his former choir for a program that spanned a variety of vocal styles. "It was very nostalgic for me," says Charles. "This choir was such an important part of my life as a young singer. It taught me so much about musicality and working together with others to create collaborative art."
In addition to taking on the solos in pieces such as the crowd-pleasing "Nessun Dorma," Charles joined the choir on the risers for an energetic encore of "I'm a Train" - he even remembered all the choreography from his school days! He displayed his signature enthusiasm, which Bob remembers from Charles' time in the choir. "He always worked hard but I don't think he considered it 'work.' He was always interested in
new experiences and opportunities."
Can you spot Charles? He's on the end of the last row in the photo above. Just like old times!
Now, Charles is giving back to the school that set him on his career path. "Hearing Charles helps [students] to see what the next level is," says
Bob. "With time and work, someone like them can go further in their
art." Grade 12 student, Kai Leung, is a composer, conductor and performer with dreams of writing for Broadway. "We were really looking forward to this performance," says Kai. "Seeing a Cawthra grad go on to
be so successful is really inspiring." In addition to performing with the chamber choir, Charles went back to Cawthra Park the following week for an exclusive recital for the school's music majors.
Kai Leung introducing the choir he formed, The Boys in B, an ensemble made up of mostly non-vocal majors from the school.
About 15 per cent of Cawthra Park students go on to have careers in the
arts, whether it's performing or in administration - some even work in the COC admin office or are members of the COC Chorus! Perhaps in a few years we'll see another Cawthra Park alum performing on the Four Seasons Centre stage and they'll remember the moment they sang with Charles in their own choir days.
Don't miss Charles in the COC's production of Maometto II, running from April 29 - May 14, where he sings the role of Condulmiero alongside superstar bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni.
Photos: Lara Hintelmann
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We are proud to announce the creation of Opera Access for New Canadians, a community outreach and engagement initiative to make the COC’s BMO Financial Group Student Dress Rehearsals and select performances accessible to new Canadian citizens and newcomers to Canada, including immigrants and refugees. The first phase of Opera Access for New Canadians begins this spring with the COC joining the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s Cultural Access Pass (CAP) program, which offers new Canadian citizens one year of complimentary admission to more than 1,200 cultural attractions across the country.
“We are proud of providing a cultural space in this country where people are free to gather, create art and express opinions—freedoms not granted in many places around the world,” says COC General Director Alexander Neef. “The Opera Access program is a celebration of that freedom and a way for us at the COC to welcome new Canadians to our community and introduce them to our art form.”
The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, founder of the ICC, says “this new partnership with the COC provides a unique behind-the-scenes look into Canada’s premiere opera company. We are delighted.” Charlie Foran, CEO of the ICC, explains, “Our Cultural Access Pass has now grown to the point where we can offer CAP members experiences in the performing arts, as well as in cultural institutions and federal and provincial parks.”
The ICC will work with the COC to allocate and distribute dress rehearsal tickets to its CAP membership. A maximum of 40 free tickets will be set aside to every COC dress rehearsal as part of the opera company’s enrollment in the ICC’s CAP program. In addition to attending a dress rehearsal, participants will sit-in on one of the COC’s BMO Financial Group Pre-Performance Opera Chats and receive an informal tour of the COC’s opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The first COC productions to be accessed through the opera company’s involvement in CAP will be Carmen and Maometto II, in performance at the Four Seasons Centre in April and May 2016.
New citizens who have received their Canadian citizenship within the past year can register for a Cultural Access Pass. The pass is valid for one year from the date of obtaining citizenship. For more information and eligibility requirements, visit www.icc-icc.ca, e-mail email@example.com or call 1-888-359-6998.
The creation of Opera Access for New Canadians is the formal implementation of a COC initiative first mentioned by COC General Director Alexander Neef from the stage of the Four Seasons Centre (mobile version here) on opening night of the company’s presentation of The Marriage of Figaro in February 2016. The COC subsequently hosted small groups of Syrian and Ethiopian refugees at performances of The Marriage of Figaro, facilitated by the ICC, Lifeline Syria and The Ripple Refugee Project. As Opera Access for New Canadians develops, additional partnerships will be announced that allow for increased accessibility to opera dress rehearsals and select performances for newcomers to Canada, including immigrants and refugees.
The ICC was founded in 2006 by the Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul to welcome new Canadian citizens and foster active citizenship for all Canadians. For more information, visit icc-icc.ca.
Photo credit: Lucia Graca
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001