Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture, School of Music and Center for the Performing Arts will present “Carmen” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 27, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29. The production includes sets rented from The Atlanta Opera, spotlights students and alumni as principal singers, and features two School of Music ensembles: Opera Theatre and the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerardo Edelstein.
Claire DeArmitt will portray the title role in her first-ever production of “Carmen.” A Penn State graduate student pursuing a master of music degree in voice pedagogy and performance, DeArmitt said she looks forward to learning “from my incredible directors, choreographers, teachers and fellow singers about this richly beautiful art form and adding a deeper level to my experience as a performer.”
After a stunning performance as Rodolfo in the 2015 production of “La Bohème” at Eisenhower, professional opera singer Matthew Vickers will be back, this time as soldier Don José. Vickers, who received a master’s in vocal performance at Penn State in 2012, said he is excited to return and considers it his way of giving back to his alma mater.
Ted Christopher, artistic director of Penn State Opera Theatre, has been busy coordinating all aspects of the production. As artistic director, Christopher said he is “responsible for everything that is ‘on’ the stage — not just the movement of the performances but the clarity of the storytelling. I am a conduit between the designers and the performers, and in charge of the scheduling and coordinating of the rehearsal and production schedule.”
In a Center for the Performing Arts interview, DeArmitt, Vickers and Christopher shared their thoughts on the enduring quality of Bizet’s work, describe the relationship between Carmen and Don José, and more.
Question: Opera repertoire consists of many timeless narratives, and “Carmen” seems to be no exception. How do you explain the opera’s enduring quality, and what relevancy does it still hold for today’s audiences?
DeArmitt: A huge reason for its popularity is that it came as such a shock when it premiered (in 1875). The smoking of cigarettes, the realism of the action and a main female character with morals that aren’t incredibly virtuous were qualities that audiences did not expect to be in an opera at the time. The drama in “Carmen” was so vastly different, but in many ways, so much more relatable. I think it has stood the test of time because of the way it deals with real human feelings and struggles. “Carmen” still holds a great deal of relevance today, even on a deeper level than just hearing the “Habanera” in commercials! I believe the reason why people are still so enamored with the opera is that it features real, three-dimensional human beings who deal with things like jealously, violence, differences in class and gender, and ruinous or even tragic love. Even if they don’t directly relate to these themes, modern audiences do relate more to characters who deal with similar issues — characters who are like themselves.
Vickers: In my opinion, what lends itself for great enduring opera is “realness.” With “Carmen,” we have a familiar tale to everyone but not in the literal sense. I don’t expect many people have lived a vagabond life, seduced a soldier into desertion, run a smuggling ring, married a matador and then, tragically, died at the hands of their beloved. At least I hope not. It’s what is in the heart of the story — it’s humanity; the struggle of relationships and ties to family and duty; the clash of our worlds with others’ and, ultimately, their reckoning. In this way, I don’t think it’s a struggle to maintain relevancy for modern audiences. These stories and struggles never go out of “style.” It’s just the façade that changes.
Christopher: I think this has to do with the fascinating characters at its center, especially the title character. On one level, the opera is a deeply moralistic tale centering on the soldier Don José, who is seduced from a life of virtue and goodness (embodied by the saintly Micaëla) by the impossibly attractive center of gravity, Carmen. Over the years, this has allowed the opera a certain prurient charm that masks some more complex issues, made more relevant and pressing in our present age. It is not satisfactory anymore to regard this as a love-triangle where the “virgin” and “whore” compete for the man at the center. Any production of “Carmen” worth its salt will place her — Carmen — back at the center of the narrative, and in doing so will discover remarkable things about the nature of truth and freedom, which are really at the core of this story.
Q: What are some of the vocal challenges of your role?
DeArmitt: The vocal challenge of this role for me is actually less about technique and more about subtext. Since Carmen is a very complex character, I believe she often says one thing with her words but says something else with a certain vocal color. Finding the right moments to add even more depth to the text and the gorgeous, exotic music is challenging but exciting.
Vickers: I am most comfortable in the latter half of the opera. Acts III and IV contain some of the richer and more dramatic of the music, especially as the opera approaches its zenith. The challenge arises particularly in Act I. This is where I take grievance with the composer himself. I find it considerably difficult to enter the stage in Act I and not have to sing for a good 15 minutes. In the dialogue version, the first thing you hear from José is spoken, not sung. This first challenge is then immediately followed by one of the most challenging, albeit extremely beautiful, pieces of music: the duet with Micaela. There are myriad nuances in the music all while performing some of the most delicate and sensitive notes written in the opera. It requires the utmost control, grace and delicacy from the singer who has been “cooling off” on stage for nearly 20 minutes.
Q: When playing such an iconic character, how do you embody the role while making it your own?
DeArmitt: This is definitely the biggest challenge! I gather perspectives from as many people as I can, draw inspirations from some of my favorite singers who have sung this role, then weave in my own interpretations, which sometimes change throughout the process. In some ways, I find it difficult to relate to Carmen because some of her values are quite different than mine. However, as I learn more about her character, she stands firm in her values and doesn’t contradict herself, which is a quality I highly respect
Q: How would you describe Carmen and her relationship with Don José?
DeArmitt: Strong, independent and complex are definitely words I would choose to describe her character. I also believe she deeply cares for people. In the show, it’s clear that she and her two friends, Frasquita and Mercédès, have developed a strong bond and care for each other. Her relationships with men are a bit more complicated. She cannot, and will not, be tied down to one; she lives for freedom. I believe she really did love José, and possibly still does until the end, but when his dependence on her love became uncontrollable obsession, she knew that a relationship with him would’ve gone against her character and the thing she values most — freedom.
Q: This production will be your third time performing as Don José in “Carmen.” How do you go about embodying the character each time? Do past performances inform your Don José in this production?
Vickers: In performing, much as in life, it can be very alluring to be trapped by what is comfortable and familiar. Particularly with preparing a role, it’s very easy to limit yourself by your current understandings. However, each time we join a new production, there are always brand new elements — namely the cast. The combinations of different stage performers is endless, and this is what can make my job extremely exciting but also scary; you never know what you’re going to get! Past performances can also act as tools in a tool belt, and in a really great production you are able to collaborate with the cast and direction and bring your own unique set of skills to the stage. Ultimately, my method is to make myself historically aware of the opera, source material, performance practices, time period, etc., and then anxiously await getting to the production and meeting my cast and direction. In the end, I think the goal is to create something new and beautiful.
Q: How would you describe Don José’s relationship with Carmen?
Vickers: Tumultuous. I think that, hidden in different lines, actions, versions, etc., there is a relationship that is very “real.” We, as an audience, want to believe that all relationships are black and white, romantic fictions for our own sakes. The truth, however, is that relationships are messy, riddled with miscommunications and never perfectly timed. The beauty and tragedy, then, in Carmen and José’s relationship is how true that fact is.
Q: What advice do you have for future graduates seeking to pursue the opera and/or performance world?
Vickers: Thirst for knowledge. Develop a drive for learning all things not only directly related to your craft. Explore new repertoire, new music, new genres, new cultures, new languages and food, new people. Explore yourself. Know yourself. Be a person. Put down the books, take a break. Relax. Put time into friends or hobbies. At the end of the day, my work takes more from me than it gives back. It’s important to have a life outside of music. Other loves, other passions and ways of truly relaxing.
Q: When you begin work on a major production like “Carmen,” where do you start?
Christopher: Discussions about this began about 18 months ago. After our success in 2015 with “La Bohème,” we wanted to identify a work that could satisfy the large-scale production we were looking for, make good use of the wonderful students currently enrolled at Penn State, feature some of our distinguished alumni who are engaged as professional opera singers and be a significant performing arts event in our community. We unanimously agreed that Bizet’s masterpiece “Carmen” fit the bill. The sets for this production are being rented from The Atlanta Opera, which requires advanced notice, and other collaborators (costume, lighting and sound designers, choreographer, etc.) needed to be brought on-board early in the process (about nine to 12 months ago).
Q: What challenges do you face directing this production?
Christopher: This production includes nine principal roles, a mixed chorus of over 40 performers, six dancers and eight children. The biggest challenge is, of course, corralling and coordinating these elements! The other challenge will be to adapt quickly to the schedule. Since this is a rental and since some of the principal roles are to be played by guests, the rehearsal schedule will be shortened, so our work will be concise and consolidated. This is very similar to the professional world, however, and will be a wonderful “real-life” experience for all involved.
Q: The music of “Carmen” has played in several movies, commercials and even video games. Most people, without having seen the opera, know the tunes of “Habanera” and the “Toreador Song.” How would you explain the popularity and staying power of Bizet’s score?
Christopher: Without a doubt, “Carmen” is the most beloved of all French opera, although its premiere was not an overwhelming success — it took several years for the opera to grow in esteem and popularity. But today, it is central to operatic repertoire. This is largely owed to Bizet, who wrote music that is so evocative both of the locale and the emotional life of the characters. The music is so accessible — lyrical, rhythmic, stirring, intense. It is interesting to note that there really is not a “definitive” version of the score — Bizet died shortly after its premiere — and as such each performance of “Carmen” must make detailed musical choices about editions. This helps to keep the work always fresh and inventive.
Q: Amid many misconceptions about opera, what would you say to encourage people to attend “Carmen” and more opera performances in general?
Christopher: Give it a chance. It is the most compelling and intense and visceral type of theater and music that is out there! You do not need to dress up (although you do need to turn off your cellphones — no joke there!), and you do not need to be fluent in a foreign language — we have supertitles! What opera is, really, is the depiction in music and theater of the most intense, meaningful, important, overwhelming moments of life. We come to the theater for those moments, and opera is full of them.