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Sarasota Opera presents a 'Carmen' for the ages

Despite recent trends, the Sarasota Opera takes a traditional approach to the popular Bizet opera.

Chelsea Laggan plays Carmen and Victor Starsky plays Don José in Sarasota Opera's production of "Carmen," which runs from Feb. 17 through March 22.
Chelsea Laggan plays Carmen and Victor Starsky plays Don José in Sarasota Opera's production of "Carmen," which runs from Feb. 17 through March 22.
Image courtesy of Rod Millington
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To update or not update: That is the question.

At least, that's the one facing opera companies producing "Carmen" and other classic works.

A wide-ranging discussion with Sarasota Opera General Director Richard Russell and Sarasota Opera Director of Education Martha Collins about this question took a funny turn when Russell pointed out a memorable moment in popular culture involving "Carmen," Georges Bizet's tale of a free-spirited gypsy.

It came during the 1960s when Bob Denver, star of the hit TV show "Gilligan's Island," performed his rendition of "Hamlet," putting Shakespeare's famous question, "To be, or not to be" to the tune of  "Habanera," from Act I of "Carmen." 

It's not an issue of "you had to be there" to appreciate the humorous juxtaposition of a 1960s sitcom with a 19th century French opera. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, anybody can watch the castaway crew on "Gilligan's Island" singing some of the most memorable words in literature to one of the most recognizable songs in opera.

There's no question that "Carmen," first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1875, remains one of the world's most popular operas. Many people who have never seen the tale of a love triangle between a gypsy, a soldier and a bullfighter have heard its music, thanks to antics like those on "Gilligan's Island."

But despite the accessibility of "Carmen," there are those who would modernize it. In August 2022, some members of the audience were stunned at the Santa Fe Opera when Carmen arrived on stage wearing a denim playsuit and a backpack instead of a peasant blouse, long skirt and a shawl. No hand-tied satchel on a stick for this hip chick.

More recently, the Metropolitan Opera has unveiled its own modern version of "Carmen," which streamed live in movie theaters across the country in January. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, the Met's production moves the story of Carmen and her jilted lover José to modern times. 

Rather than an Andalusian village, the action takes place near the Mexican border in an unnamed U.S. state. The updated story focuses on domestic violence and leaves behind the triumph of the bullfighter Escamillo and seemingly, the Establishment.

In its preview, The New York Times called the Met's production "Murder Most Unromantic." (Spoiler alert, but it's really not a surprise.  What's an opera without murder, madness and mayhem?)

While there is much to be gained through modern adaptations of classic operas — Jonathan Larsen's musical "Rent" owes its existence to Puccini's opera "La bohème" — the Sarasota Opera has opted for a romantic, traditional version of "Carmen." 

Says Russell: "We do operas in the time periods they are represented in. We feel for our market, our audience, that this aesthetic is right."

Sarasota Opera's "Carmen" runs from Feb. 17 to March 22 in the opera's 59th season. The other productions on the bill of the Winter 2024 Opera Festival are Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," Verdi's "Luisa Miller" and Haydn's "Deceit Outwitted." (More on those in the weeks to come.)

Chelsea Laggan plays a free-spirited gypsy who careless breaks men's hearts in "Carmen," which plays at Sarasota Opera from Feb. 17 through March 22.
Courtesy image

The Sarasota Opera's latest production of "Carmen" (the last was in 2018) stars Chelsea Laggan as Carmen, Victor Starsky as Don José and Andrew Manea as Escamillo.

"Carmen" takes place outside of a cigar factory, giving civilians the chance to appear on stage in "supernumerary" or background roles. You can add being a "super" in a Sarasota Opera production to your bucket list. It's a lot of fun, but it's not for dilettantes since the rehearsal schedule is quite demanding.

By today's standards, Bizet's tale of a woman who lures a guard away from his fiancée, only to throw him over for a more dashing escort, isn't shocking, even if it is cruel and coldhearted. But when "Carmen" debuted in the 19th century, it created a scandal and was deemed a failure for the French composer Georges Bizet.

The real tragedy is that Bizet died suddenly after little more than 30 performances of "Carmen," which features a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Bizet didn't live to see how "Habanera" and the "Toreador Song" would become crowd-pleasers for generations to come. 

Like "Habanera," the "Toreador Song" has been woven into the fabric of popular culture. One of the most memorable twists on the catchy tune is a "Sesame Street" rendition performed by Samuel Ramey dressed as a bullfighter that was rewritten as an ode to the letter "L." (Give it a Google and get a laugh, regardless of your age.)

In popular culture, nods to opera often symbolize romance, glamour and sometimes insurmountable boundaries of class. Opera references in movies and TV live on for new audiences through YouTube and other videos on the Internet. 

Case in point: Who can fail to be impressed when they learn that Sarasota Opera's Collins appeared on stage when Nicolas Cage takes Cher to the opera in the film "Moonstruck." Although she appeared as Mimi in the "La bohème" featured in Norman Jewison's 1987 film, Collins didn't sing the vocals.   

"I didn't mind," says Collins, who joined the Sarasota Opera as education director in 2021. "It was still a good credit." 

In her job, Collins is responsible for developing Sarasota Opera's Youth Opera and Adult Education programs as well as community engagement efforts. She helps recruit those "supers" who will play soldiers, villagers and cigar factory workers in "Carmen." She's also the stage director of the production.

Many artists and arts administrators will tell you that their love of theater, dance or opera began when they were taken to a show on a school trip or by a family member. Collins says she has met many people who were inspired to become opera singers, administrators or audience members after seeing "Moonstruck." 

"You may recall in the movie, Cher goes to the opera without really knowing anything about it and really enjoys it," Collins says. "I love how in that small way I've been part of the message that says anyone can enjoy opera."

Sarasota is fortunate that young people have the chance to participate in opera, an experience that may be common in small towns in Italy or Germany, but not in the U.S. outside big cities such as New York and San Francisco.

If modern twists on classic tales, like Buzz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet, "Rent" or even The Met's updated "Carmen" bring in new audiences, that's a good thing. I, for one, will be happy to wrap myself in a fringed shawl and carry a Spanish fan to Sarasota Opera's traditional production of "Carmen." 



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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