She Put a Spell On You: Dayton Opera Tempts Audiences with Carmen

By Eric Street

Photo: Illustration of Carmen, published in 1875 in Journal Amusant, a French weekly satirical magazine

Do you hear the sound of castanets approaching in the distance?

Women, guard your men! And men, guard your hearts—opera’s most popular seductress sashays onto the Schuster stage, Friday, May 19, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 21, at 3 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center.

If you haven’t guessed the title by now, Dayton Opera, under the artistic direction of Thomas Bankston, is presenting Georges Bizet’s best-loved work, Carmen. One of the most popular operas ever written, Bizet’s masterpiece marks the fourth and final opera of the 2016-2017 Excite Season for Dayton Opera, as well as the seventh concert in the Premier Health 2016-2017 Dayton Philharmonic Masterworks Series. A Signature Event for Dayton Performing Arts Alliance (DPAA), Carmen showcases all three DPAA art forms—the opera, ballet, and philharmonic—in an exhilarating evening of artistic collaboration and Spanish fireworks that will leave you humming.

“I think audiences love Carmen because it’s so passionate, and it brings to the fore those base emotions that we may not want to admit to, but we have nonetheless,” says stage director Fenlon Lamb. “It’s cathartic, it’s emotionally charged, and it continues to hold you through its music and drama.”

Of course, challenges abound, according to Lamb. “Carmen’s epic! There are a lot of moving parts to French Grand Opera, and Dayton has all of them. Here in Dayton, you’ve got this wonderful set-up with the opera, the dance company, and the orchestra all under one umbrella, the way it was meant to be. You’ve got the 40-voice chorus, the supernumeraries taking all sorts of parts, the soloists, the dancers, the musicians, the children’s chorus, the stage crew, the lighting and costumes—everything it takes to put on an opera like Carmen,” she explains.

“To get them all working together and make it all look natural—that’s a challenge! It’s like herding wild cats. Everyone’s a professional, everyone’s doing their job, but it’s still quite an undertaking to fit all the moving pieces together, to give it an atmosphere. And we’ve only got two weeks to do it!” she laughs. “I drink a lot of coffee!”

Is there anything a potential audience member should know? “Opera is not the snooty thing that some think,” Lamb insists. “It’s entertainment; it’s drama! Come ready to hoot and holler, shout ‘bravo’ if you like it. Go for it—opera is a contact sport!” All performances are sung in the original French with English surtitles.

From the beginning, to the end

Poor Don José. Poised to marry Micaëla, the sweet-voiced hometown “good girl” his mother approves, he topples like a giant oak in a storm when the temperamental gypsy sets her laser sights on the hapless corporal. He doesn’t have a chance. Not only is Carmen unscrupulous and beguiling, she’s irresistibly tuneful. Don José doesn’t give in without a struggle, of course, and neither does pure-hearted Micaëla, who bravely dares to search for her love in the mountainous gypsy smugglers’ lair and beg him to return. But who can resist Carmen’s seductive “Seguidilla” or her inviting “Habanera”? Certainly not Don José, and definitely not audiences that have fallen for Bizet’s masterpiece.

What Carmen boasts in allure and vocal splendor, she lacks in attention span. Don José soon finds his once-comfortable world quickly imploding about him. He risks everything for the fickle gypsy—his promising military career, his former sweetheart, even a final chance to see his dying mother. And for what? Fleeting passion in the middle of a gypsy smuggling ring he was assigned to police.

His doom is sealed when in swaggers his rival, the virile baritone Escamillo, a bullfighter. Well-equipped with the glamour of the bullring and his irresistible “Toreador Song,” Escamillo snatches the prize from the devastated tenor, Don José. Despite fateful warnings from a reading of the cards in the celebrated “Card Trio,” Carmen never veers from her self-determined path to destruction. She vows to remain forever free. In the final scene outside the bullring, she will pay for her freedom with her life when she resists the desperate pleadings of jealousy-maddened Don José.

Behind the curtain, on stage

Returning to the Schuster stage direct this operatic gem is Fenlon Lamb. Lamb is currently the director of opera and vocal programming at Bar Harbor Music Festival. Over the last several years, Lamb has directed for numerous opera companies across the United States, including UMKS Conservatory of Music, Opera Carolina, Austin Lyric Opera, Orlando Philharmonic, Seattle Opera, Cleveland Opera on Tour, Toledo Opera, and Arizona Opera. In 2014, she directed a “fizzing and delightful” Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) for Palm Beach Opera, “displaying theatrical ingenuity and artistic taste.”

Dayton Opera Artistic Director Thomas Bankston has assembled a cast of extraordinary talent to bring Carmen to life. Making her Dayton Opera debut in the title role is Audrey Babcock, an award-winning mezzo-soprano who is quickly gaining recognition for her commanding performances as Carmen. She has performed the role to rave reviews with over a dozen opera companies. Of her recent outing in the role with Nashville Opera, The Tennessean writes, “Babcock so completely captures Carmen in look, gesture and voice that one stays easily and willingly under her spell all evening.” Of her appearance with Utah Festival Opera Company, The Salt Lake Tribune adds, “Audrey Babcock’s performance of Carmen was a spellbinding tour de force.”

Dominic Armstrong returns in the leading tenor role of Don José after his 2014 Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Armstrong has quickly established himself internationally as an artist of superb musicality and characterization. Burt Saidel of the Oakwood Register said of his first appearance with Dayton Opera, “American tenor Dominic Armstrong captured the audience from his first notes…. Dominic has vocal versatility that could mean many returns to Dayton Opera.” Dayton Opera agrees and is excited to have Armstrong back to Dayton to perform the part of commanding yet smitten Don José.

Returning to Dayton Opera for her fourth appearance is soprano Deborah Selig, who sang Amy in Dayton Opera’s Little Women in 2005 and Adele in Die Fledermaus in 2006. She was also the soprano soloist in the 2015 Season Opening Spectacular, American Mosaic. A former student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCCM), Selig has earned critical acclaim for her rich, shimmering voice and her excellent artistic instincts. She sings the role of Micaëla, the wholesome village girl competing in vain with the seductive Carmen for Don José’s affection.

Bass vocalist Nathan Stark also takes the Schuster Center stage for the fourth time, after last appearing alongside Selig as the bass soloist in An American Mosaic. Stark sang Friar Laurence in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet in 2012 and Hunding in Wagner’s Die Walküre, Act I, in the 2013 The Glory of Wagner production.
The Washington Post praised his booming voice as having “unearthly power.” Stark sings Escamillo, the splendid toreador who snatches Carmen’s attention away from Don José and propels the drama to a famously tragic conclusion.

Dayton Opera welcomes the four talented artists from its 2016-2017 Artists-in-Residence Program. These vocalists gained their competitive places through national auditions and have spent the last two months appearing at numerous schools throughout the Dayton community to present musical programs to educate and inspire Dayton area students with the art of opera. Additionally, they have performed in several Dayton Opera company appearances, including Handel’s Messiah this past December, the Dayton Philharmonic Chamber Concert Sound and Song in February, and a special community performance called A Taste of the Arts.

Artists-in-residence include soprano Chelsea Friedlander as Frasquita, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Frey as Mercédès, tenor Brian Skoog as Remendado, and bass-baritone Vincent Grana as Zuniga. This appearance will be Friedlander’s second appearance on the Schuster stage after singing Blonde in Dayton Opera’s delightful February production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio.”

Carmen has always meant so much to me, ever since I was a child,” says Frey, who plays Mercédès. “I don’t think I really knew what it was about when I was that young, but the music strongly affected me anyway. Carmen is one of the best-loved operas of all time, and with good reason. When it first premiered, it shocked the audiences of France with its blunt, sexy, and violent themes. I think it can’t help but pull an audience’s carnal nature to the forefront with its seductive, emotional music. It is appealingly human…”

One such human and musical moment she finds herself “watching over and over” is the Act IV finale, elaborating, “The perfect musical composition of this scene, its increasingly threatening nature, Carmen’s defiance and irrepressible sense of freedom in the face of death—I can’t help but be utterly captivated by it.”

Rounding out the cast is baritone Tyler Alessi, who made his Dayton debut this past October as a soloist in Dayton Ballet’s world premiere of Dracula: Bloodlines. A current graduate student at the CCCM, Alessi studies under long-time Dayton Opera friend Kenneth Shaw. Alessi performs the role of the smuggler Dancairo.

Members of the Dayton Opera Chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Jeffrey Powell, add to the vocal splendor on stage and enrich the lively crowd scenes of Bizet’s work. Joining this professional chorus will be the Kettering Children’s Choir, under the direction of Bruce Swank.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman, plays a starring role in bringing Bizet’s Spanish-tinged score to rich, colorful life.

To mark the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance’s final Signature Event of the season and the finale to Dayton Ballet’s 79th season, the full Dayton Ballet company joins Dayton Opera on stage. In keeping with grand opera tradition, Dayton Ballet Artistic Director Karen Russo Burke has choreographed work for her company of dancers to add to the vivacity of Bizet’s tour de force.

Back in time, forward through history

Bizet completed Carmen in optimistic spirits. Its plot was adapted from a novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée and turned into an opéra comique, with spoken dialogue separating the musical numbers. He had to simplify some of the music during rehearsals, since the orchestra found it too difficult. Paris was already gossiping (probably inaccurately) that Bizet was having an affair with his leading lady, and the public received the premiere with surprising coldness. Critics were generally hostile, and some expressed outrage that the leading character was not a woman “of virtue,” as Donald Jay Grout explains in “A Short History of Opera.” Some griped that the singers were subordinate to the “noise from the orchestra.” Carmen was performed to half-empty houses, even when management gave away many tickets. After the 33rd performance, Bizet died suddenly at the age of 36. He would never know that Carmen would soon find acclaim in foreign capitals and that his final work would be considered his greatest. Not surprisingly, after the initial Paris run, some of the first to respond favorably to Carmen were the composers Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Wagner. Today, thanks to the magic of radio and television as well as the pervasive presence of cartoons and Sesame Street, the melodies of Carmen are well known to many who have never entered an opera house door. Don’t miss the opera that shocked Paris with its frankness and empowered one man’s vision to outlive his time on Earth, into the next centuries.

 

Dayton Opera’s Carmen takes the stage Friday, May 19, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 21, at 3 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets range from $28–$93, with senior and student discounts available. UD Music Professor Dr. Sam Dorf presents pre-concert talks an hour before each performance, with ‘Opera Bites’ also available in the Wintergarden. For tickets or more information, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit DaytonPerformingArts.org.

 

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Eric Street
Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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