Carmen, the most famous opera in the world, is coming to the COC stage next month.
It follows the the story of the sultry gypsy, Carmen, who seduces a naïve soldier, Don José. He in turn dumps his childhood sweetheart and ditches his military duties, only to be rebuffed by Carmen (who now has eyes for toreador Escamillo). The spurned José then seeks his murderous revenge.
Carmen is being brought to life by two tremendous singers who are sharing the lead. We spoke with Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili and French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine about what it takes to become one of the most loved characters in opera.
SDTC: How do you prepare for this role?
Anita: Now, after all these years, Carmen is almost part of me. But going back to day one, and this when I was learning the role in the conservatory with my former teacher in Georgia, to prepare for the role was to learn all about Carmen. Studying the music, of course, but also reading and thinking about Carmen all the time. I really wanted to know her and understand who she is. After all these years, it feels natural to step into the role. Not that she’s easy. She’s a complicated woman, but it now feels like there’s a part of Carmen in me.
Clémentine: Carmen is a role I have sung a lot and will be singing a lot. As she’s never too far away, it’s not difficult to bring her back. I don’t do anything special, but I’m always a big observer of human beings and I’m always spying on men, women, to see how they seduce each other. I go very often to Spain, which is very close to the place where I grew up, and I’m a big fan of Flamenco. I learned to dance a bit of Flamenco and I understand a lot about Carmen just by watching people dancing and singing the Flamenco.
Every production I do of Carmen teaches me something different about her as well. This role is so amazing that you can never stop learning something different about her.
Can you describe how you get into character for playing Carmen?
Anita: How I look when singing Carmen is important to help me get inside the character of who she is. It’s important to help me feel like Carmen, to have the beautiful dress, a bit of décolletage. If I’m doing my own makeup or if someone else is doing it for me, I want to finish the look off with red lips. Nothing really special, a lot of the usual things that you do for a role, but all important to getting into character.
Clémentine: To get into the character before a performance I always start the day by dancing. Even if the production doesn’t require dancing, Carmen has to be aware of her body and of the impact of her body on others. She has to move smoothly and be in control of all of her gestures and aware of the people around her. She’s an animal so you have to make your body and your mind come awake.
What do you love about this character? What do you loathe about her?
Anita: I’ve performed the role of Carmen for over five years so I feel a real understanding for her. To me, Carmen is not just a woman who goes from man to man. She’s a very strong woman, but a lonely one, who is trying to find her happiness as we all do. When I perform her, I try to just BE Carmen, to bring to the audience who she is and how she struggles to live a difficult life.
I don’t hate anything about Carmen, but I do wish she would live for more than just this idea of freedom that she’s chasing. She loves this idea of freedom but doesn’t know how to love herself.
Clémentine: I love the freedom of this character. I love her passion and her sense of humor. I love that she’s living for herself and not to please others. I love that she’ll do anything, even dying, just to keep her freedom. How modern is this character.
I loathe that she gives me bruises during the rehearsals because of how angry she makes Don José…
What is it about this opera that resonates with people, in your opinion?
Anita: First of all the music is beautiful. Comic operas are always really nice to hear and in Carmen’s case, you know it is going to put you in a good mood: you’re going to hear beautiful music; you’re going to see beautiful women on stage; you’re going to see beautiful men on stage.
If we talk about the idea of Carmen, generally, people also love the love story. There’s this huge, big drama that’s happening on stage between this woman and this poor man who loves her. It’s a simple story, but it’s about life and love. We can see some aspect of that story in our own lives and feel a connection to it.
Clémentine: Well, as I said, freedom is still and will always be something one will have to fight for. And still, nowadays, maybe women even more. And there’s the genius of Bizet who wrote the most amazing, energetic and beautiful music. Every time the music starts for the overture, I notice that people backstage are all smiling and dancing. There’s a life in this music which speaks to everyone, even people who are not so much into classical music.