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BrumHour is invited to see and review Welsh National Opera (WNO) performances through the year.
Welsh National Opera (WNO) brings productions to Birmingham Hippodrome twice a year and this season sees Carmen, one of the most well known productions return.
By Diane Parkes
Welsh National Opera bring new Carmen production to Birmingham Hippodrome
Bizet’s Carmen is a 19th-century opera classic of dark-eyed gypsies, flamenco and castanets set in hot and sultry Seville. But Welsh National Opera’s new production takes Carmen out of its traditional home and moves it to Latin America in the 1970s.
It’s a decision aiming to give us a contemporary Carmen which comes to Birmingham Hippodrome on 5th and 8th November. Stripped of its stereotypes, the new production brings us a Carmen we can recognise as a working-class woman facing the difficulties of women across the globe – how to survive in a male-oriented and money-dominated world.
In moving Carmen away from its typical setting, director Jo Davies is keen to ensure audiences experience the core of Carmen’s story – the tale of a woman whose free will in love results in tragic consequences.
“When you look at the score and the themes that are embedded in Carmen, you realise that Bizet was telling, in quite a radical way, the story of a working-class woman who wants the freedom to express her own sexual choices,” Jo says.
That is a story one can look at in any scenario. And I think one of the dangers of the familiarity of Carmen in a sunny Spain with castanets is that you stop looking at the real story because you’ve seen it so many times. It doesn’t make you look afresh at the characters or investigate what’s really going on.
We were particularly keen to look at the economic circumstances of Carmen – she’s a woman working on a minimum wage within a very tight community that is also under the control of a military state. So there are all these potential factors which could limit Carmen’s freedom to be who she wants to be.”
Latin America gives the production the opportunity to explore these themes in a hot-blooded climate.
We started to look at favelas in Latin America and realised the energy of those communities,” says Jo. “There’s a real energy in their religious and mystical beliefs and there’s also a heavy military presence in some of these countries where the communities are pitched against the army. This is the environment which Carmen is growing up in – and it’s a hostile environment.”
The production isn’t tied down to a specific country or year – a deliberate decision.
Allowing it to take place in a setting which is a bit ambiguous allows it to retain a story which is still mythic,” Jo says. “You need a world which can feel very real and cohesive where all of the characters are utterly tethered but which country or which year or which politics are less important.
It’s the sexual politics we are looking at. Carmen has very much had to learn to use her power as a woman. She has no education, no money or economic standing, no family network that we know of and no real social standing. So she’s had to find a way to get through. She’s a woman by herself so uses all the tools she has.”
For Jo, an important part of telling this story and creating the energy of Carmen lies in Bizet’s music – but it also lies in the physicality of movement and dance.
There’s always a big focus on dance in Carmen,” she says. “In part, it’s because of the bohemian gypsy energy that’s there with Carmen’s wild spirit.
There are lots of references within the opera to dance – moments when Carmen dances in front of Don José, she also dances for the soldiers and there’s the physicality of the bullfighting. We wanted this strong physicality to be an integral part of the story – we were keen that those moments didn’t feel isolated and were truly integrated into the piece and that they felt part of the world.”
This physicality comes to life in many different ways – in a packed chorus moving round the stage, infighting and in dance. Jo is familiar with the abilities of WNO, having directed the company’s Kiss Me Kate in 2016, so was keen to use the skills of the chorus but also introduce professional dancers into the cast.
Together with movement director Denni Sayers, Jo auditioned for two dancers to perform duets and solos – finding the perfect combination in Latin and ballroom champion Carmine de Amicis and flamenco and Welsh-born contemporary dancer Josie Sinnadurai.
I was very confident that the chorus could present a huge physical energy on the stage even if they didn’t have particular dance skills,” says Jo. “And what we wanted to do was to also ensure some performers with a higher degree of technical dance skill who we could focus on and pull out when we felt we needed to. That ensures a strong physicality all the way through the opera but also opportunities to really draw on dance at certain points.”
Carmine and Josie appear throughout the opera but there are moments when they take centre stage as dancers rather than actors. Denni explains how the choreography has been created specifically for this production to bring alive the spirit of Latin America while also progressing the story.
I’ve tried to create a fusion dance style so you wouldn’t say we’re in Buenos Aires or La Paz – it’s something which is much more about the story we’re trying to tell about the relationship between this man and this woman rather than about following one dance style slavishly and accurately,
I’m using a lot of the idea of tango in that there’s a lot of hesitation in tango and it’s quite combative and I’m also quoting several other Latin American dance styles like lambada and salsa. It’s creating a fusion that is unique because the dance has to serve the drama. It’s a very conscious decision for the dancing to be quite combative and to highlight the challenge between the man and the woman.”
Denni has choreographed previous WNO productions including Aida, Chorus, Don Carlos, Ariadne auf Naxos and last year’s War and Peace. Working with Jo, Josie and Carmine to develop the choreography for Carmen, she is also ensuring the production makes the most of the dancers’ strengths.
Josie and Carmine have a very wide dance training and a real wealth of physical vocabulary to call on because they’ve had classical training, contemporary training, ballroom training, flamenco – all of those things inform what we are doing.
The dance needs to be organic to the dancers’ way of movement and we’ve been very blessed with Josie and Carmine. They have a wonderful physical chemistry – they really spark off each other and improvise wonderfully together. They can tell a wonderful physical story on stage.”
Carmine, who grew up in Italy but is now based in the UK, is not only an internationally renowned Latin and ballroom dancer but has also studied contemporary dance and classical ballet. For Carmen, he is both performer and assistant choreographer. And he says the flavour of the dance is strongly influenced by the production’s setting and how dance is a natural part of life in Latin cultures.
Because it’s set in South America we have been exploring different elements of different dances to create choreography which reflects the culture of dancing together and rhythmical movement,” he says.
Bizet’s score is not a Latin score so it’s more about creating atmosphere than a particular dance. In South America, you don’t have to be a professional dancer to know how to dance. You step up and you have your cultural rhythm and you just get on with it – it’s more a social thing than going to dance classes.”
Josie grew up in Brecon and was determined to be a dancer after watching a flamenco show at the age of three. She studied dance in London and Cardiff and is now based in Spain but performs internationally as both flamenco and a contemporary dancer. Carmen is her first opera and, although not directly performing flamenco, she is able to draw on her experience of the Spanish dance.
There is something about the attack of flamenco which is shared with the Latin dances even though the dance steps are very different,” says Josie. “It’s something to do with the way you carry yourself and the eye contact and the presence that you bring to the dance so I don’t feel I’m in a completely different world from flamenco.
But moving the show to South America does give it another aspect – it’s saying this story could have happened anywhere, rather than pinning it down to Spain. Carmen is usually known as the ‘Spanish opera’ so the country becomes really important while other operas are known more for their story. Moving it to another setting contributes to it feeling more like a real story with real people.”
Welsh National Opera perform Carmen at Birmingham Hippodrome on 5th and 8th November: birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/wno-carmen
Rigoletto on 6th and 9th November: birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/wno-rigoletto
The Cunning Little Vixen on 7th November: birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/wno-the-cunning-little-vixen
This isn’t a sponsored post.