Sex, Lies and Fate

KSO presents Carmen , the way Georges Bizet intended

Backstage

by Kevin Crowe

Angel Gil Orrios, the director of the Knoxville Opera Company's production of Carmen , once directed a Flamenco dance troupe in Madrid. Among them was one of the most famous gypsy Flamenco dancers of all time, La Chana (roughly translated as â“She who knowsâ”). It was a crash course in gypsy culture; as Orrios explains, he was able to experience firsthand all the passion and intensity of the Flamenco, how each stepâ"each rhythmic slap of the feetâ"is an orchestrated expression of struggle and desperation, everything that makes us human. Our fears, as well as our hopes, all of it finds its way into this wildly beautiful dance.

â“I wanted to have the real Carmen,â” Orrios says of this production of Bizet's most famous opera, which was a failure when it debuted in 1875. â“It was a challenge to make a French opera that sounds Spanish without a single Spanish note,â” Orrios goes on. â“That's what it's like many times when you go to the opera. It's not real. It's cardboardâ. I want to know what's happening, what these characters are really like. I want it to become so real, so passionate. I feel that's what opera has to do today, because otherwise there's not going to be an audience.

â“If you're thinking about it too much, you're not feeling it. I don't want the opera to go thereâ"â” he points to his headâ"â“I want it to go hereâ"â” pointing to his heartâ"â“then they can really experience the music.â”

Bizet's vision was never fully realized in Carmen . Many of the récits, the transitory melodies that help bridge the songs together, were written after Bizet's death. â“I feel it's much better to cut all that crap, which to me is third class,â” Orrios says. In this production, instead of relying on the tired récits that have been lumped onto Carmen , the actors will not sing, but speak the lines that Bizet had written in his original production notes.

â“That's what he intended, and it shocked the audience in 1875,â” Orrios continues. â“It's about sex, lies and fate.â It's about sex! That's what it's about. Period.â” Back in 1875, operagoers were quick to call it scandalous, and when the curtains fell, the audience remained completely silent. The libretto, which was based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée, must have been ahead of its time.

Love is a rebellious bird/ That nobody can tame , Carmen sings in the â“Habanera,â” which is one of the most famous arias of all time. Love is a gypsy child/ It has never, never, known a law.

â“Every note of this music is incredible,â” says Karen Nickell, who'll be playing Carmen. â“It's an incredible score. That's one of the things that draws people into the theaters, just beautiful, beautiful music.

â“It's been an interesting challenge. With the addition of the flamenco dances, I've been trying to imitate as best I can these professional dancers. It took the role to another levelâ. It's not just about singing it well, I want opera to be good theater. But opera also has to be primo music. That's what makes opera the best theater, because you get it all.â”

In Carmen , it's easy to get lost in the music, because it's so beautiful, and the story can get lost in translation. For Orrios and this cast, that's unacceptable. The story is just as important as the music. â“I consider myself to be a singing actress,â” Nickell says. â“I think that it brings a completely different flavor, a stronger Spanish flavor. It's been woven throughout the entire opera.â”

Sex and lies, that's what it's all about, set in southern Spain. This is a Spanish opera, trapped in a French musical tradition. With any luck, Orrios is helping to set it free by bringing a decidedly Spanish flavor to these arias.

But no matter what, it's always great opera, because the story is universal. â“Who hasn't been in love,â” says Edlyn de Oliveira, who'll be playing Micaëla. When the four principal characters find themselves intertwined, and when their libidos are out of control, it's universal. We've all been there.

Opera is unlike any other form of theater, combining the best parts of a human drama with the most heavenly scores ever composed. â“You have to react, to be very much in the drama,â” de Oliveira says. â“It's much more organic, and spontaneous. It doesn't feel like you're acting any more. You're reacting.â”

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