“This is a story of a love that should never have been,” said J. Gawf, Music Director of Opera Omaha’s upcoming production Carmen.
Written by composer Georges Bizet in 1875, Carmen was not very successful when it first debuted. In fact, Bizet died before the opera flourished.
The character of Carmen is traditionally seen as sexy and sultry, often wearing a flamenco dress and a red rose behind one ear. That’s what most of us picture when we think of the iconic character. But Gawf is quick to point out that’s NOT all that’s going on in Opera Omaha’s version.
“This is a different take on Carmen as a character. She’s not just sexy, she’s also a little crazy. This woman is dangerous,” explained Gawf.
He said it’s a little edgier than other productions of Carmen that have been done in the past. A director friend of Gawf’s suggested this is the non-glamorized version of Carmen the character.
The Carmen we meet in the opera is living a poor gypsy life. This is life as it really was in the 19th century so Gawf said it’s grittier and more rustic than other productions people may have seen
According to Gawf, Opera Omaha purchased the set and costumes from the New York City Opera about a year ago when they were having a fire sale.
“So it’s a set and costume that has been presented at the New York City Opera on a number of occasions. In fact, we have the original designer Paul Shortt. He is here and will be reworking some of it, adding to it and changing it around somewhat,” Gawf said.
Carmen will have a traditional feel to it. Opera Omaha did not update it to a different time period.
Said Gawf, “Carmen started a new era in opera. It was a turning point for composers because everything before then had been about the hierarchy, of kings and queens. This was the beginning of ‘verismo,’ which means ‘realism,’ in opera. This opera brought real people and daily ideas to the stage instead of these lofty hierarchical ideals.”
Carmen is a gypsy who has a job in a cigarette factory but also belongs to a band of thieves and thugs. One day she gets into a fight with another worker and is arrested by one of the soldiers outside the factory. She is taken to jail where she is watched over by a soldier named Don Jose.
She seduces Don Jose and tricks him into letting her go. Unfortunately, he does this in front of the other soldiers and is subsequently arrested because he helped her.
Gawf referred to the love affair between Carmen and Don Jose as a dangerous love and a dangerous attraction. He said this is mirrored in a fate theme that plays at different moments throughout the opera including the overture.
Over time it is explained that Don Jose left his town because he killed a man there and so cannot go back. At one point, his love from this other city, an innocent woman named Micaela, comes looking for him.
Though she initially misses him, when he does come back, Don Jose and Micaela share a beautiful duet.
Act II will feature nine dancers from Ballet Nebraska. Gawf said the dancers are helping augment the production. He said there is Flamenco and all sorts of wonderful dancing. Act II is also where the audience meets Escamillo, the lead bullfighter that Carmen falls in love with while Don Jose is in prison.
And this is only the beginning of the story that Gawf deemed “tragic.” The entire opera of Carmen is comprised of four acts. There’s definitely a lot to it. There are 41 local chorus members supporting the 10 principals as well as 21 youth ragazzi who play street urchins/street kids. There are also supernumeraries – people onstage who don’t sing – and nine ballet members.
“So at any one point, there could be as many as 97 people onstage, plus two goats that make an appearance. That’s as large a group as we’ve had onstage during my tenure here,” said Gawf.
He said it’s spectacle but not flashy, glittery and beautiful. It has more to do with how many forces are up there onstage and how much story there is. In addition to the cast members onstage, 55 Omaha Symphony musicians will be playing in the orchestra pit.
Gawf theorized that the reason Carmen sticks with people is because everyone can relate to it. Everybody has had an attraction that doesn’t or can’t work out.
“I think today’s audiences are able to relate to the story. Maybe the relationship they are in doesn’t go as far as this but everyone can understand that type of relationship,” he said.
The other big draw of Carmen is definitely the music. The familiarity of the music cannot be denied. Whether people have heard the tunes in commercials or movies, the music is recognizable to audiences.
“The Toreador (Bullfighter) song is a little dangerous. Then there’s Carmen’s first act aria, “The Habanera.” Everyone has heard these pieces because they have been used so often,” said Gawf.
He said he thinks people like to leave the opera humming something. Gawf finds it interesting to hear what people take away or think is their favorite part because everyone is unique in that way.
Gawf encourages first-time opera-goers to give Carmen a shot. He said it’s a good production for those who are intimidated by opera. Though it’s sung in French, there will be super titles in English above the stage so you can follow along.
But Gawf said the great thing about opera is you can easily tell what’s going on just by watching it. And he said the familiar tunes reinforce the idea that this opera is accessible.
There will be an intermission between Act I and Act II and a break between Act II and Act III. Gawf said Act III and Act IV have been put together with two orchestral interludes. Ballet Nebraska will dance these interludes while the crew is changing the sets behind the curtain.
Carmen will run about three hours and 15 minutes, intermissions included. So Friday’s 7:30 performance will end around 10:45 while Sunday’s 2:00 matinee should conclude by 5:15.
“Carmen is an outlandish character and the production is quite unique. There’s just nothing similar to it in the repertoire. It’s one of a kind,” Gawf said.
Carmen is at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S 16th Street, Friday, November 1st at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, November 3rd at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $19-$99 at 402.345.0606 or www.ticketomaha.com.