When Brandon’s Barn Opera produced Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” last year, Artistic Director Joshua Collier wasn’t happy with the blatant misogyny he perceived, so he rewrote the libretto, but without touching a note of the glorious music. This year, he finds himself in a similar spot, but with Bizet’s “Carmen” — perhaps the most recognizable of all operas.
“I feel that Carmen herself as a character is an incredibly strong and powerful woman — and actually advances feminist ideas,” Collier said recently by phone.
“However, I think that the opera shows her in a negative light,” he said. “She’s a victim of domestic homicide, and (it glorifies) Don José is as a sympathetic and romantic character. The problem that I have with Carmen in general is that it’s from such a man’s masculine perspective. I believe that Don José is the villain in this show.”
Barn Opera will present “Carmen,” in Collier’s adaptation, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 17 and 18, at Brandon Music. The production will be partially staged, spoken in English, sung in French with English supertitles, and accompanied by piano.
In the 1875’s original “Carmen,” with libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, the simple Don José is an army corporal away from home for the first time. When they arrest the fiery cigarette factory girl Carmen, a Gypsy, she seduces him into letting her escape, and finally entices him to desert not only the army but the girl who loves him, Micaëla.
With time, Carmen tires of Don José and sets her eyes on the bullfighter Escamillo. At the bullfight, Don José demands Carmen return to him and, when she refuses, he kills her. If he can’t have her no one can. All this is set to some of the most glorious music in opera, including the famous “Habanera” and “Toreador Song.”
Using that same music, Collier’s version turns character relationships on their heads, not unlike how the Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me Kate” rethought Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Barn Opera conceit will place the action in a production company in New York City producing the opera “Carmen.”
Carmen (mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer) is the prima donna of the opera, but also a former dominatrix (hence, always in control). Jose (Collier, a renowned tenor) is the assistant director of the production. Escamillo (bass Cailin Marcel Manson) is the leading man of the show, and Michaela (soprano Jessica Jane Jacobs) is Jose’s hometown ex-girlfriend who tries to get him to come back home. (Russ McColman and Bill Moore fill out the abbreviated cast.)
As with Carmen, these characters aren’t quite the originals. In fact, Collier’s approach adds a bit of humor to the dark drama.
Collier is stage directing, assisted by Nicholas Tocci, as well as singing Jose. David Sawicki is the music director and pianist.
“It’s not so much Carmen’s lack of femininity or weak womanhood as much as it is a downplaying of the danger of jealousy and toxic masculinity,” Collier said of the original. “I do not want to be responsible for glorifying another domestic homicide, where the woman falls victim to a jealous man.
“If the theatrical characterization of the man were completely shunned from society, I would not have the type of problem that I have, as typically Don José remains the romantic, sympathetic and romantic lover, such that it almost makes the audience question whose fault it is that Carmen dies.”