Festival Opera presenting ‘Carmen’ at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center

Four arias sung by Carmen, the titular lead character in French composer Georges Bizet’s famous opera, portray a complex, sensual, confident woman unafraid of her sexuality and desire for power, says mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven.

The four-act opera that premiered in 1875 just three months before Bizet’s untimely death at age 36 is based on an 1845 novella by French dramatist and archaeologist Prosper Mérimée.

The libretto by Henri Meilhac tells a timeless story of love, obsession, jealousy and tragic violence that spins around Don José, a soldier whose all-consuming desire for Carmen leads him to abandon his career and childhood sweetheart, Micaëla. Fiery and frequent Spanish and Cuban dances add lush, visceral reward to a score universally recognized as a masterpiece in operatic repertoire.

Festival Opera will present “Carmen” on Aug. 18 and Aug. 20 in two acts with one intermission at Walnut Creek’s downtown Lesher Center for the Arts. The 2.75-hour production sung in French with English supertitles (translations displayed above the stage) celebrates the company’s 32nd anniversary season and features conductor and San Francisco Opera veteran Robert Mollicone, choreographer Michael Mohammed, production designer Peter Crompton, lighting designer Matthew Antaky, costume designer Joy Graham-Korst and makeup by Kristen Campbell and Denise Gutierrez.

The cast offers equal luster: in leading roles joining Raven as Carmen are soprano Hope Briggs (Micaëla) and tenor Dane Suarez (Don José), along with baritone Young Kwang Yoo, bass-baritone Matthew Lovell, soprano Lila Khazoum, mezzo-soprano Lily Bogas, tenor Taylor Thompson and baritone Andrew Fellows.

Raven has had a busy 2022-23 season, appearing with San Francisco Opera in works by John Adams, Francis Poulenc and Giuseppe Verdi; debuting her first “Carmen” with the Des Moines Metro Opera, performing Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” with Marin Alsop and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia festival and more. Zachary Gordin, Festival Opera’s general director, says Raven’s broad range of vocal and artistic tactics is ideal for commanding the demanding role.

“Ms. Raven has superb technical facility as well as a gorgeous warm vocal timbre. I love the intention that she sings and acts with, meaning that from the time Taylor begins breathing for a phrase there’s living purpose and communication.

“Carmen may be a fiery character, but she also has to convey longing and vulnerability for the big moments to truly pop. Taylor is an artist with absolute connection to the moment she’s conveying, whether in quiet, hushed moments or the biggest vocal gestures.”

In a separate interview, Raven said the role is tricky “in the best of ways.” A singer most be agile, producing equal power in coloratura (vocal embellishment) and in lyric or dramatic passages sung in lower registers.

“It can also be an exercise in pacing and endurance because it’s an active role. She doesn’t often leave the stage,” Raven says of her character.

She said the sum of these elements requires stamina, fine-tuned delivery and never becoming bland or “resting,” even when not the center of attention.

“You have to never over-sing. The beauty in how Bizet wrote it is that it’s possible to relax into it, but you must remember to have gas left for the Act IV scene with Don José. Amidst the singing, fighting and dancing of the three acts prior, Carmen has to have something to give in this scene.”

Calling attention to four arias/songs, “Habanera,” “Seguidilla,” the “Card Trio” and “Tavern Dance,” Raven says her voice while producing the huge breadth of vocal writing must sound effortless.

“The ‘Habanera’ that everyone knows just flows. It’s a great introduction to the character. The ‘Seguidilla’ in Act I is the most dynamic and my favorite because she shows what her voice can do. There’s a lot of French to get your voice around. The ‘Card Trio’ in Act III is where I show Carmen’s humanity, who she is when no one is watching.

“She has a public persona but here she shows who she is when no one is paying attention. It’s hugely dramatic and intimate. In another scene (‘Tavern Dance’), Carmen is in the tavern with her women friends, and it’s a fun dance song.”

Performing the role recently in Des Moines, she found the character evolving.

“Carmen is smart and can read a room easily, but she’s never casual. You have to meet that with energy; keep her from hanging back. She has to stand out even in the midst of not trying too hard. It’s about thought and letting that inform how she moves. She’s not passive when she’s not speaking.”

Festival Opera’s Gordin, asked about the opera’s themes of sex, repression, abuse, violence and class struggles, says, “We have an opportunity to truly speak to our audience in a context of current social struggles with situations and scenes they would likely recognize from life in the Bay Area.

“Our ‘Carmen’ will display themes of class, sex, repression, individuality, divination, death and duende (charisma), all from the point of view of a woman and her friends truly seeking liberation.”

Raven reflects on the same topic with frank authenticity.

“It’s a messy opera in the way it addresses the dynamics between men and women. In their world and often in ours, everything is centered around the wants of men. Carmen may use society to get what she wants, but she doesn’t play into it in expected ways. She owns her sexuality; she’s confident in things she values.

“Her appeal is largely because she doesn’t play into the misogynistic ideal. She says the same things in the ‘Habanera’ as she does in her death scene at the hands of Don José. She’s steadfast; she’s not subservient to men.”

Viewing the role as a woman of color, Raven says, “As a Black woman, there are always layers in anything I do. Black women deal with being oversexualized and punished for embracing who we are and loving ourselves.

“We dehumanize characters who aren’t White when we say they’re not afraid of death, but that’s not right. I wonder about synopses of the opera saying she’s not afraid. I think she must have been afraid, but she is brave. This is a distinct role where that can come through.”

Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at lou@johnsonandfancher.com.


Lesher Center: bit.ly/leshercarmen2023

Festival Opera: festivalopera.org/carmen

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