George Bizet’s Carmen debuted in 1875, but the two women who will play the lead role in the Opera Kelowna version later this month believe it resonates today in ways that are personal even to them.
Carmen, according to the playbill, is the story of a “flirtatious and hot-tempered Gypsy seductress who steals the hearts of an army officer, Don José, and a bullfighter, Escamillo.” The story covers the full scale of emotions and ends with a “bloody, final confrontation outside a bullfighting arena.”
Barbara King, who will play Carmen on Aug. 17 and 19 at Kelowna Community Theatre, and Suzanne Lommler, who will take the lead on Aug. 16 and 18, both jumped deeply into the role for different reasons.
“With this role, especially in this day and age, with all this #MeToo and women’s rights and empowerment, this is a really great opportunity and venue to show that empowerment,” says King, who has performed for both the Edmonton and Calgary operas. “Carmen is not a weak woman. She is a strong woman, and she’s the leader of these gypsies, including the men, the smugglers. She’s the one that leads this group and helps them survive, and they really look up to her.
“So she’s a very strong woman who does what she needs to do without putting herself in a situation or tries not to put herself in a situation where she’s going to get hurt. Thinking about that, just as a woman, it is extremely empowering.”
It goes even deeper than that for King, however, whose own violent past will play a part in how she presents Carmen to the audience.
“I really have to dig deep into myself, because I actually do come from an abusive relationship with my ex-husband, so it brings up a lot of those emotions with physical abuse and mental abuse,” King says. “So doing this character just makes me feel so in control. I’m powerful right up until the end, and then she realizes her fate is death, and she comes to that realization, but at the same time I feel so strong going through it and keeping my people fed. It’s quite deep, actually.”
Lommler, meanwhile, remembers watching Carmen as a youngster and not liking what she saw. She didn’t like the way Carmen was presented—so much so that she didn’t even sing the arias when she was learning her craft. That all changed when she was offered the opportunity to play the role in Kelowna. She has been working on it for more than a year.
“Having the offer forced me to really think about the character and how to make her human, because she should be human,” says Lommler, an American who has performed in Chicago and Italy. “So I’m thinking the whole time how to show her raw sensuality and passion and fiery spirit and her freedom without having the audience get the wrong idea.
“It’s hard to do. And then you also have the added complication of a big theatre. You have to show it all the way to the back row, but the people in the front row have to believe in it, too.”
King and Lommler both praised the cast that has been assembled for the productions. Bernard McDonald is returning to Opera Kelowna as the conductor, and Carmen will represent the debut of award-winning theatre and opera director Amiel Gladstone.
Usually when there are two casts, one gets more rehearsal time, but both leads report the stage time has been split down the middle. That means there will basically be two different productions over the four days.
“People should come to both shows,” King says, “because although it’s the same opera it’s going to be a completely different opera.”
As for anyone who has never been to the opera, Lommler believes Opera Kelowna’s production of “the heart-wrenching story of fiery passions and desperate acts” would be a good one for a newcomer to break into the genre.
“We promise you you’ll know what’s going on,” Lommler says. “A little tip to prepare would be just to read a synopsis online so you have a general idea of which characters are going to appear on stage, and there will also be English text up above the stage.
“So if you want to know exactly every word that’s being said in time you can just glance up above. It helps to maybe read a synopsis beforehand.”
Tenors Steeve Michaud and Ernesto Ramirez will share the role of Don José, joined by soprano Lara Ciekiewicz as Micaela and baritone Geoffrey Sirrett as toreador Escamillo.
Jessie Award-winning costume and set designer Drew Facey will create an animated contemporary setting. Makeup artist Missy MacKintosh will incorporate body tattooing, while master cutter Keren Huyter will design corsets, all with a cutting-edge, modern take on steampunk style.
The production will also draw particular focus on nomadic global residents, immigration and urbanization.
“We go to the theatre sometimes to escape, but we also go to the theatre to identify with each other and to lean on each other for support,” Lommler says. “So when you feel something—yeah, I understand that—then it’s a release that everybody needs.”
A series of free concerts and community engagements will support and inform Carmen’s run. Details can be found here.
For tickets and further information about Bizet’s Carmen, visit operakelowna.com.
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