An intimate version of Carmen promises to give this historic work a personable edge.
THE EAT, Sing and Travel People (EST) are in song again. The group, which performs operas when not eating or travelling, will be bringing French composer Georges Bizet’s final and most well-known work Carmen to life. After staging Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème at Publika’s Black Box last year, EST once again returns to the space for this year’s production.
Executive producer Danny Chen says while they did an abridged version of La Bohème, EST would perform all four acts of Carmen. Raising the bar further, this year’s production involves more than a 100 people: 10 principle singers, a 35-strong adult chorus, 40 kids from the Young Choral Academy children’s choir and participants from EST’s own Opera for Kids workshop, backed by an eight-man band and production crew.
“After last year’s success, we wanted to do the larger scale production with Carmen to give more people a chance to perform,” says Chen.
He explains that it was part of EST’s philosophy to educate people through their performances, from watching the opera itself, to having pre-show talks with the audience, and even hosting a charity show for the kids from the Dignity for Children Foundation.
Showing a timetable that looks more like a rainbow-coloured economic report, Chen shares that the most challenging part of producing was lining up everyone’s schedules. A second worry was the budget. From cast’s pay, their outfits to the stage lights and rental, an opera was bound to have considerable costs, even in a smaller location like the Black Box.
“Though it’s smaller, we find Black Box makes a good experience for audiences. While the full size opera halls are so large you need binoculars to see the actors, this stage makes it more of an up-close-and-personal experience,” says Chen.
Conductor Florian Caroubi says they also cut down the size of the orchestra to fit, using a band of eight instead.
“While it’s easier to conduct a smaller group, but with a full orchestra it’s easier to build up the sound or hide a flaw from any one musician,” says Caroubi.
Chen revealed that he cut costs renting rather than buying the outfits from costume designer Dominique Devorsine, to playing up the dramatic lighting instead of going for grand stage props, and – giving a little bow to his principle singers present – Chen admits that the singers played their part by asking for only a nominal fee.
His Carmen, played by soprano Ang Mei Foong laughs heartily at this.
Ang, a lecturer of music by day, sets straight the assumption there is no market for classical singers in Malaysia. “While it’s rare to do a full orchestra, there are many paying opportunities to do opera excerpts or to sing at private functions,” she says, adding that to play Carmen, she didn’t mind doing Chen a favour.
While some might assume that an opera first performed nearly 140 years ago may be old fashioned or dull, Carmen was actually so ahead of its time that the audience of the day found it too scandalous. Written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and based on a novel by Prosper Mérimée, Carmen tells the story of Don José, who is lured away from his duty as a soldier and his beloved Micaëla by the fiery and seductive gypsy girl Carmen.
“That’s what makes Carmen special, when it was staged the public felt it was too real, a useless guy leaving a nice girl to run off with gypsy. People were cringing!” says Chen.
The opera features an almost entirely local cast, with Dr Yap Jin Hin playing Don José, Soprano Jane Soong as Micaëla, while Filipinos Jamie Sampana and Cipriano “Zip” De Guzman Jr. respectively play Micaëla (reserve) and the matador Escamillo.
“It was a conscious choice to pick local talent, though I had to give Zip and Jaime a chance as they flew themselves in just to audition for the role,” says Chen. Surprisingly, Micaëla was the most sought-after role, rather than the leads Carmen or Don José.
“Those are such heavy roles that it may be intimidating for some, as not just a matter of vocal power but also stamina is required. A few considered taking the lead roles, but backed out when they realised they’d have to do the whole opera. For four nights!” says Chen.
Lucky for Yap, he has the support of his fiancee Soong, who is also his betrothed, Micaëla in the opera.
Going into the relationship dynamics, Soong believes that while Don José loves Micaëla but he’s not in love with her, thus why he is so quickly drawn into a whirlwind romance with Carmen.
“I think Micaëla is shy but brave, at one point even going to a den of bandits to convince her man to return to his old life, but...” Soong pauses to shoot Yap a look, “Don José is a hopeless man”.
Ang concurs that Don José and Carmen are the classic affair, driven on by a weak-willed man pulled along by a manipulative woman. “He’s a jellybean!” she sums up.
Yap agrees that Don José was a complex role despite, or rather because of his flip-flopping attitude.
“The challenge for me as Don José was moving between his two sides. While he is sweet and loving with Micaëla, he also has a mad side that abandons common sense for Carmen,” says Yap. “In opera, the lady usually dies or in more romantic stories, we (the leads) die together,” he pauses to laugh, “but in Carmen, Don José actually kills his lover at the end!”
Soong adds that if she was put in as Micaëla, she would kill Carmen herself.
Caroubi says the tension between the leads is what makes the opera’s closing act his favourite. “Don José’s words then are so strong and beautiful. There is love and hate at the same time, seeing the woman you love escape from your reach,” says the passionate French man. He invites those who think opera is dull to come see the sparks fly.
> The Eat, Sing and Travel People present Georges Bizet’s Carmen at Black Box, Map @ Publika, Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur at 8pm on Oct 29 to Nov 1, and a 3pm show on Nov 3. Admission is by minimum donation of RM80 for adults and RM40 for students. Carmen will be sung in French, with English and Chinese subtitles, with a free pre-show talk, half an hour before the show. For enquiries or to book, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 012-372 8892 or 012-205 8691.