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Kentucky Opera puts modern, gritty spin on classic 'Carmen'

Louisville Courier-Journal logo Louisville Courier-Journal 9/18/2019 Caleb Wiegandt, Louisville Courier Journal
a person posing for the camera: Kentucky Opera will stage "Carmen" during its 2019-20 season. © Produced by Randy Blevins, Think Tank Marketing. Photographer: Clay Cook Kentucky Opera will stage "Carmen" during its 2019-20 season.

There's no happy ending here.

Georges Bizet's "Carmen" tells a lust-filled yet dark love story peppered by possession, betrayal and, ultimately, murder.

But it's more than just a tragic tale. It's a vibrant examination of domestic violence that resonates just as much with audiences today, if not more so, than it first did when it was penned in the late 1870s.

Set in Seville, Spain, "Carmen," at its core, tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the gypsy Carmen. The classic tale will spring to life with the Kentucky Opera at the Brown Theater, 315 W. Broadway, in downtown Louisville on Friday and Sunday. 

But don't expect the production, stage-directed by Seattle native Dan Wallace Miller, to paint Carmen, portrayed by Elise Quagliata, solely as a wily seductress.

"We’re leaning into the story of 'Carmen' where she is torn by her circumstances of being in a relationship that is not healthy. And she looks for a way out. In the end, she realizes it is the unhealthiest of all possible domestic relationships where she is abused and eventually killed,” Kentucky Opera General Director Barbara Lynne Jamison previously told The Courier Journal. “That is a very 21st century story, unfortunately.”

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In fact, you might feel like you're watching more of a Martin Scorsese film than a 100-plus-year-old opera, Miller said. 

"The production we’re doing at the Kentucky Opera has a really hard edge to it. There’s a lot of violence," he said.

As a director, he's amped up the source material for modern audiences, who "can put up with more explicit representations of sex, violence, and the evils of life than you could ... in the 19th century," he said. If you take it at face value, "you can’t look away and it’s absolutely gripping."

Some productions in Europe, Miller said, are giving the tale a modern-day retelling and flipping the ending, having Carmen triumph over the rageful Don Jose at the conclusion of the opera.

"But to me, that felt like wish fulfillment," he said. "It also felt like it was ignoring the fact that the story of 'Carmen' viewed from today’s perspective is essentially the story of assault and murder within a relationship — or at least a failed relationship. It is domestic violence.

"This stuff happens all the time. It still happens, and to switch the power dynamic or to have that sort of wishful thinking is to miss an opportunity to make a strong comment" on an ongoing issue, he said.

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While Miller made strides to update "Carmen" for a modern-day audience, he was careful not to alter the script.

"It’s pretty clear from Bizet and from the novella that it’s based on by Prosper Mérimée,  ... that Don Jose is this nobleman who was lead down a path of criminality and murder by this seductive temptress, which is kind of a nonsensical thing now," Miller said. "So, to present this now is to see 'Carmen' as a victim both of this abuse Don Jose delivers upon her and also a victim of her circumstance of being insanely poor, working at a sweatshop rolling cigarettes and having no money."

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She has a "hardscrabble upbringing, (has) to fight for what (she's got), and the fact that her sexuality is the only thing she has that can get her just a little bit of a leg up — a modicum of power and respect in this society that is built to oppress her class and race," he said.

Miller never breaks the text and never directly contradicts what the characters are saying onstage.

"But I really love to twist it, bend, it, to just shift that prism and find a new angle to make something fresh again for an audience that might be used to a more standard and traditional understanding of these very old stories," he said.

And old stories are his forte.

"The funny thing about opera is that it is really the only form of theater that deals almost exclusively in works that are an average of a 100 years old, if not older," he said. "I have always viewed it as my responsibility as a director to be continually reexamining why it is that we are performing these pieces, a lot of which were written with a completely different political and social mindset than what we have now."

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In addition to a compelling story, what he has in spades with "Carmen" is amazing music, from the earworm "Toreador" to "Habanera."

"The funny thing about 'Carmen' is it’s probably most known among the big-time operas for having the most memorable music, and the irony was that when it first premiered, all the critics said there wasn’t a single memorable tune in the entire show," he said. "You can’t get the show out of your head. The music is super compelling, the tunes are memorable, and when it gets dramatic it’s insanely gripping."

Miller said while the entire production and cast is amazing, audiences should pay close attention to Dominic Armstrong's portrayal of the violent Don Jose, who Miller mirrored after the people he sees day in and out in the news. 

"Don Jose has a lot of similar characteristics to a lot of the people committing mass shootings in America," he said. "We’ve turned him into this man who fetishizes his gun."

In "Carmen," Don Jose has this "disdain for open sexuality and women that, at first when he sees Carmen and she’s singing her 'Habanera' to the crowd of people and enticing all of them, he’s disgusted by it," he said.

But "once he is the recipient of it, he claims ownership over it," and Miller said he sees those same toxic masculine ideas in people who carry out mass shootings or terrorist attacks.

"We’re approaching it from the fact that Don Jose is more akin to a serial killer than a guy being led astray, and Dominic Armstrong took to that immediately," he said.

"Carmen" is the first production in the Kentucky Opera's Brown-Forman 2019-20 season. It is followed by "Glory Denied," "The Marriage of Figaro" and a special production of "Robin Hood" by the Youth Opera program. Tickets start at $20 and are on sale at kyopera.org or by calling 502-584-7777.

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Reach Courier Journal intern Caleb Wiegandt at cwiegandt@gannett.com.

Kentucky Opera Brown-Forman 2019-20 Season

'Carmen'

By George Bizet. Sung in French with English supertitles

WHAT: Iconic. Brave. Timeless. Carmen struggles to overcome her tragic circumstances. Featuring Bizet’s magnetic music, hear some of the most recognizable music in opera, including the "Habanera," the "Seguidilla," and the famous "Toreador Song." Carmen is a heroine for the ages. 

WHERE: The Brown Theatre, 335 W. Broadway

WHEN: 8 p.m. Sept. 20; 2 p.m. Sept. 22

CAST: Starring Elise Quagliata* as Carmen, Dominic Armstrong* as Don José, Richard Ollarsaba* as Escamillo, and local soprano Emily Albrink as Micaëla. 

'Glory Denied'

Music by Tom Cipullo; Libretto by Tom Cipullo, based on the book by Tom Philpott

a man and a woman posing for a picture: Kentucky Opera will stage "Glory Denied" during its Brown-Forman 2019-20 season. © Produced by Randy Blevins, Think Tank Marketing. Photographer: Clay Cook Kentucky Opera will stage "Glory Denied" during its Brown-Forman 2019-20 season.

WHAT: One of the most important new works of present-day opera follows the saga of Jim Thompson, America’s longest-held prisoner of war. This production over Veterans Day weekend will amplify the stories of our servicemen and women and their families who have made the ultimate sacrifices serving our country. 

WHERE: The Brown Theatre, 335 W. Broadway

WHEN: 8 p.m. Nov. 8; 2 p.m. Nov. 10

CAST: Starring the 2019-20 Sandford Studio Artists.

PARTNER ORGANIZATIONS: Kentucky Opera is partnering with area military veterans’ organizations to take the conversation about this important production out into the community, including the Veteran Community Alliance of Louisville, Active Heroes, Louisville VA Medical Center, Veteran Shakespeare Group, Veteran’s Club and Kentucky Veteran of the Year, Jeremy Harrell.

'The Marriage of Figaro'

a couple of people posing for the camera: Kentucky Opera will stage "The Marriage of Figaro" during its Brown-Forman 2019-20 season. ( © Produced by Randy Blevins, Think Tank Marketing. Photographer: Clay Cook Kentucky Opera will stage "The Marriage of Figaro" during its Brown-Forman 2019-20 season. (

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Sung in Italian with English supertitles

WHAT: Witness the redemptive power of friendship in what many call the perfect opera. Mozart takes audiences on an adventure of love and deception. Countess Almaviva conspires with the young couple Figaro and Susanna to thwart the Count’s devious intentions to ruin the young couple’s wedding day. Will Susanna and Figaro make it to the altar?

WHERE: The Brown Theatre, 335 W. Broadway

WHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 14, 2020; 2 p.m. Feb. 16, 2020

CAST: Starring Tess Altiveros* as Susanna, Amber Monroe* as Countess Almaviva and Brian Vu* as Count Almaviva

'Robin Hood, a youth opera'

Kentucky Opera will stage "Robin Hood" during its Brown-Forman 2019-20 season. © Produced by Randy Blevins, Think Tank Marketing. Kentucky Opera will stage "Robin Hood" during its Brown-Forman 2019-20 season.

By Ben Moore and Kelley Rourke. Originally commissioned by The Glimmerglass Festival

WHAT: The culmination of the inaugural Youth Opera Program, this production is a fresh take on the classic childhood tale performed by youth for youth and their families. Faced with corruption from the tyrannical Sheriff, Robin follows the voice of his heart and leads a merry band of ordinary citizens to change their world. 

WHERE: Bomhard Theater, Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, 501 W. Main St.

WHEN: 7 p.m. March 27, 2020; 2 p.m. March 29

CAST: Featuring Kentucky Opera’s 2019-20 Youth Opera Chorus

*Kentucky Opera Debut

How to get Kentucky Opera tickets

Tickets start at $20 and are on sale at kyopera.org or by calling 502-584-7777. Season subscriptions are also still available and include all shows except "Robin Hood."

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky Opera puts modern, gritty spin on classic 'Carmen'

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