A little French, a little Spain, a lot Carmen

High-school literature teachers would rejoice over the conversation I recently had with Asheville Lyric Opera's general and artistic director David Starkey. While talking about the ALO's upcoming production of Carmen— the Georges Bizet opera based on the novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée — it became clear that the teachers were onto something during those lectures we struggled through at the time: The themes found in classic works are universal, relevant from generation to generation. Starkey is excited to share the story of Carmen with Ashevilleans for that very reason. It still has something to say.

Stirred and shaken: "There's almost nothing that will ever stir you as much as Carmen will," says ALO director David Starkey. Here, Elise DesChamps and Brian Cheney.

"We sometimes have complications in our lives where it's not just black and white. You've got these layers," he says."These are the struggles that are between the male and female lead." While the opera's characters don't learn from their complications, the audience can. "We're going to help people understand that you can unravel those complexities that you have whether it's the passion of love, or whether it's the passion of country, or the passion of rights, whatever that is, and keep working for balance."

Bizet's masterpiece, which premiered in 1875, is a French opera set in Seville, Spain. Both Mérimée's novella and Bizet's opera tell the story of Carmen, a beautiful and fiery gypsy who woos an officer, Don José. When Carmen chooses another man over him, Don José's jealousy leads him to murder his former love, feeling that if he can't have her, no one else can. It's the stuff not only of classic literature, but heart-wrenching country songs and soap operas. Still relevant, and
it's also open to modern-day influence. The ALO first performed Carmen six years ago, but Starkey's not afraid of the repeat.
"You have to bring back that standard, top-of-the line repertoire that is part of your craft, and then present the interpretation as we have grown as a society and culture," he says. "Since we've already done it, now it's going to be about what more can we say with this show. How have we evolved as a company, but also how have we evolved as a culture."

One exciting difference between the ALO's last run of Carmen and the upcoming production lies with the main character herself. For Élise DesChamps, a French-Canadian mezzosoprano, it's a role debut, although she has previously performed with the ALO, as Maddelena in last year's production of Rigoletto. The performance also features guest conductor Robert Franz, an N.C. School of the Arts alum and former assistant conductor of the Winston-Salem Symphony. He's now the music director of the Boise Philharmonic and associate conductor of the Houston Symphony, among others.

Starkey sees the title-role actress as responsible for both handling the complexities of her character and the complexities inherent in the opera. He admits that the juxtaposition of setting and language can confuse some, but this go-around, he's more certain than ever that his lead, DesChamps, can mitigate that confusion. "To bring the French language to such a vivid life … she's going to have this unique ability to cut right through that complication and be able to show this passionate conflict that Carmen deals with."

Of course, Bizet's talents as a composer also have something to do with the reason a somewhat startling contrast can be understood, Starkey says. "Bizet had this masterful ability to be able to layer complexities that his predecessors had not done," he says, specifically referencing his use of French for a story set in Spain. "Spain and France, although close on the map, they're so far apart. He was able to layer those things in such a unique way and to bring in these layers of characters and to keep them very identifiable all the way through. You just don't lose the purpose of why a person's there. You get it."
Worried you won't "get it" if you've never before been exposed to the genre? Don't be, Starkey says.

"This is the opera that a young man or woman would want to come and see," Starkey says. He acknowledges that he's not promoting the production to the elementary schools with which the ALO works because of the violence. But, it's perfect "for a young man or woman who is looking for those artistic moments to really be stirred, and to find some connection with, from a cultural standpoint and musical standpoint," he says. "There's almost nothing that will ever stir you as much as Carmen will."

True to the tone of the discussion, Starkey finishes with a bit of homework. He encourages Carmen novices and veterans alike to read the story at least once before watching the performance — whether it's a translation of the novella online, or the synopsis provided at the theatre. After getting a feel for Bizet's inspiration, relax and enjoy the show.

[Maggie Cramer is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]

who: Asheville Lyric Opera, with guest conductor Robert Franz
what: Carmen
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Friday, April 9 & Saturday, April 10, at 8 p.m., with a preview dress rehearsal Wednesday, April 7, at 7 p.m. ($28-$49, www.ashevillelyric.org)

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