- PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIEL KEPL
- THE GYPSY: Karin Mushegain, pictured, sings the titular role in Carmen, a collaborative production directed by Ross Halper.
As is the case of many iconic French things, Georges Bizet’s Carmen was reviled by Parisians upon its 1875 premiere. The opera-comique, after all, was for tales of gods and royalty, not prostitutes and bullfighters. The world of Carmen was one of seedy taverns and factories, of smugglers and urchins. Its tale of crime, seduction, and ultimately, the onstage murder of its titular character brought the medium from its heavenly heights, bidding it instead to follow the lowly wanderers of the earth.
Bizet died during Carmen’s first run, and never saw the opera become the internationally celebrated work it is today. From a contemporary standpoint, it is laughable to imagine Carmen as a work of gritty realism. Carmen today looks like sheer opulence, a masterpiece of heightened reality and stylized drama.
An upcoming local production of Bizet’s opera, in fact, is the result of the collaboration of a wide range of artists and organizations. Opera SLO, the SLO Symphony, the Civic Ballet, the Central Coast Children’s Choir, and the Cuesta College Concert Choir will bring Bizet’s vision to life on Oct. 12 and 13. Staged at the Cal Poly Performing Arts Center, the production is directed by Ross Halper and conducted by Brian Asher Alhadeff.
The productions stars Karin Mushegain as the fiery gypsy Carmen, who stirs up both infatuation and jealousy in the hearts of the soldier Don José, sung by Christopher Campbell, and the toreador Escamillo, sung by Isaiah Musik-Ayala. Director Halper’s version seems to emphasize the passion and earthy sensuality of the story.
“You want to touch a woman any chance you get,” Halper reminded singer Gabriel Vamvulescu, who plays Zuniga, at a recent rehearsal.
A tavern scene in the second act is loose and bawdy, the gypsies taunting the drunken men. A gypsy dance, choreographed by Civic Ballet Artistic Director Drew Silvaggio and featuring nine of the company’s dancers, conveys both the scene’s late-night mood and the competitive nature of the women, who vie for the men’s attention—and their money.
“This is like the aftermath of the first wave of the party,” said Silvaggio of the gypsy dance. “So people are a little tipsy, people are a little tired.” Under Halper’s direction, he went on, the scene “seems like it’s all about the sexual tension and kind of rubbing up against each other and sweating a little bit. And that scene comes as a second wind to the party, so that it starts out kind of solemn, and kind of builds and builds to the point where everyone is jumping up and dancing once again.”
Such proletarian scenes led to the controversial nature of the opera at the time of its premiere. Today, the opera is widely recognized as marking a transition from the opera-comique to verisimo traditions, as conductor Alhadeff, artistic and general director of Opera SLO, explained.
“One of the reasons Georges Bizet’s opera had a tough start was it was the beginning of a new kind of opera,” he said, as singers Campbell, Vamvulescu, and Karen Dunn (who plays Mercedes) rehearsed in the adjoining room. “And we call that verisimo opera. It stems from the Roman times in sculpture, where verisimo in sculpture was, you would see the sculpture of a head and it would have a wart, and the creases of the face and the furrows of a brow, and it was the artist trying to capture the real person … The statue of David is totally chiseled and smooth, the essence of a man, whereas verisimo does the opposite, there’s a lot of verisimo sculptures from Roman times of old people, handicapped, old women, young children.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIEL KEPL
- THE TOREADOR: Isaiah Musik-Ayala, pictured, plays the bullfighter Escamillo, who becomes infatuated with the free-spirited Carmen.
“Fast forward to 1875, and the movement in verisimo is to have operas that are about real people, about real settings,” Alhadeff continued. “It was an opera that was aimed at contemporary problems.”
Silvaggio and his dancers first collaborated with Opera SLO on last year’s production of The Nutcracker, which was accompanied by a live orchestra under Alhadeff’s baton.
Alhadeff sees the collaborative effort that is Carmen as partially owing to that previous partnership. While many in his position prefer conducting orchestral works to opera or dance, with all of their increased variables, Alhadeff enjoys being part of the complex storytelling process of works like Carmen and Nutcracker, and during rehearsal could be seen paying close attention to the dancers’ feet as he kept the tempo.
Carmen also employs a delivery style known as recitative, he explained, in which spoken dialogue is underscored by musical punctuations. This requires the conductor to pay constant attention to what’s being said on stage, in addition to the usual matters of tempo and volume.
“What happens when you put a dialogue in there is you make the orchestra a part of the narrative process,” said Alhadeff. “The recitative is one very important part of opera. In old-fashioned opera, the orchestra would totally stop playing and a harpsichord player would play those punctuations. In other situations, the conductor plays that part.
“Carmen is a different animal,” he continued. “By 1875, the evolution of recitative kind of morphed into the overall fabric of the music. So there is never a stop in music from the whole opera. The harpsichord’s gone, and now the orchestra plays those punctuations. And that’s probably the most difficult thing for a conductor to do.”
There is no standard edition of the opera, and many amendments have been made following Bizet’s death. In this particular version, several pieces of music have been added specifically for the three dances featured in the production.
Silvaggio’s aesthetic tends toward the contemporary—his works rarely embody “typical ballet”—and he sees the progression of the three dances as a gradual movement from classical to contemporary.
“If you watch the three pieces, you can see how I kind of deconstruct it as it goes, down to the root of the movement that I like to do,” Silvaggio said, laughing with this admission.
While the first dance has all the hallmarks of classical ballet, this influence fades with the second. In the third and final piece, the dancers incorporate body percussion, slapping their hips to the beat, throwing their arms out in a defensive gesture, and rolling their bodies with an organic, earthbound grace.
“It’s the same repeating phrase over again, which I thought was really fun,” said Silvaggio, with characteristic enthusiasm. “And like all choreography, I just start in my apartment with music playing way too loud, and I just started bangin’ my hip, and then I was bangin’ with both hands, and then I was bangin’ and throwin,’—it was so weird. I was just doing this whole dance based on me hitting and gesturing to people.”
Silvaggio describes the piece as “so not Carmen,” yet in tone it fits oddly well. While thoroughly modern, the dance exudes a certain folk charm, underscored by the same streak of dangerous sexuality possessed by the opera’s own femme fatale; the very streak that will drive our heroes mad. Watching their seductive movements, you know this story’s not going to end well.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at email@example.com.