George Bizet’s Carmen
It’s interesting that many of the things that now make Carmen one of the world’s most popular operas are also the things that were met with disgust when Frenchman George Bizet introduced it in 1875. This scandalous, dark tragedy tells of Gypsies and thugs, not kings and queens. And the spoken French dialogue bridging musical pieces that was at first frowned upon adds a level of intimacy that modern-day audiences have come to love and find refreshing. Bizet died at just 36, shortly after Carmen first appeared, having never seen it become a success.
“This opera was odd for its time,” says Michael Borowitz, artistic director of Nevada Opera, which will bring Carmen to life this weekend. “Bizet took a chance with this because it showed real people, everyday low-class people, and their plight.” It’s one of Borowitz’s all-time favorite operas. “I almost hate to say this because I’m such a fan of them, but French opera is the quintessential suave opera. It’s very elegant, and the music is very catchy, which is why it’s so popular.”
In fact, even if you’re an opera novice, you’ll recognize such pieces as “Habanera” and “The Toreador Song.”
But the catchiness of its songs and relatability of its characters don’t mask Carmen’s very dark themes of lust, obsession, betrayal and murder.
Though written and performed in French, the story takes place in 1830s Spain. Don Jose (tenor John Pickle), whom Borowitz calls “a bit of a hothead,” enlists in the military to help resolve his anger issues. He leaves behind his girlfriend, Micaela (soprano Suzanne Woods), and winds up in Seville with the rest of his regiment. It’s here that he meets Carmen, played by soprano Kirsten Gunlogson. Carmen is a beautiful temptress who is part of a Gypsy smuggling ring. Don Jose’s obsession with Carmen makes it easy for her to convince him to join forces with her, leaving his promising military career and poor Micaela in the dust.
But Carmen is untrustworthy and has flirted or slept with nearly every man in town. When Escamillo (baritone Dennis Jesse), the renowned and much adored bullfighter, returns to Seville, Carmen drops Don Jose, and his jealousy turns to violence, bringing the story to a tragic end.
Most exciting for Borowitz is the appearance of Gunlogson, a native Alaskan who is also assistant professor of voice at the University of Utah. This is Gunlogson’s debut with Nevada Opera.
“She’s a beautiful woman with a tremendous voice, so she’s really perfect for Carmen,” says Borowitz.
Gunlogson is truly captivating in person, which suits the role of a siren like Carmen. And Dennis Jesse’s deep, rich baritone will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. A highly sought-after baritone, Jesse recently joined the faculty of Louisiana State University. For Nevada Opera, he played Marcello in La Boheme and Mr. X in Circus Princess. During a recent rehearsal, the chemistry between Gunlogson and Jesse during “The Toreador Song” was palpable—one can only imagine how electrifying the actual performance will be.
The cast also features the Nevada Opera chorus and more than 20 Youth Chorus members. You may also recognize local performers Therese Curatolo and Susan Benefield as Carmen’s sidekicks Frasquita and Mercedes.
Additionally, you’ll see some impressive choreography by Barbara Land, a dance professor at the University of Nevada, Reno and a flamenco expert.
“You’ll absolutely feel like you’re in 100-degree, midday Seville,” says Borowitz. “It’s hot, dusty and colorful, a beautiful production.”