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Carmen is no bull 

Pacific Repertory Opera hosts its third and best production of Carmen

Carmen, titled after its free-lovin' gypsy character, is one of the world's most popular operas. Its plot is rife with passion, love, jealousy, tragedy, and murder. But then, dozens of operas riff lustily and loudly from these themes. Its history is equally dramatic. When it debuted in Paris in 1875, critics decried it as immoral--this from the city that served as a definition of 19th century bohemianism.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

# The once-criticized opera has enjoyed more than a century of success since its rocky beginning, and, thanks to Pacific Repertory Opera, has a 20-year history on the Central Coast alone. In 1988, the three-year-old opera company staged it at the South Bay Community Center in Los Osos. The set was minimalist, the cast--with two exceptions--was local, and the budget was $3,500. PRO co-founder and general director Jill Anderson sang in the production.

Then, in 1995, PRO again told the story of the fiery, doomed gypsy, this time at Cuesta College. Anderson conducted.

The opera company will perform Carmen for a third time on April 4 and 5 at the Performing Arts Center. The budget for the production is $70,000, 20 times the budget for the original production. Anderson will again assume the role of conductor, a bittersweet experience given that it will be PRO's final production with Anderson at the helm her retirement from the opera company that she helped found goes into effect June 1.

"I love this opera," said Anderson, who sees it as a fitting conclusion to her work with PRO.

"Carmen is the story of the liberated soul versus the more regimented society. It's just a very exciting and human story."

Another important tale involves director Tanya Kane-Parry's operatic background. Kane-Parry sought inspiration from memories of living in Barcelona for her treatment of the opera, set in Seville.

"While I was there, I was taken to bullfights and I decided to study flamenco dance," she said. "I don't agree with bullfighting on an ethical level, but it's important to take the time to explain the essence of what the symbols are in a bullfight. There are four acts to a bullfight, and very specific things have to happen. A bullfight mirrors a Greek tragedy, and the lead character must die."

In Kane-Parry's interpretation of the production, Carmen is the sacrificial bull because she represents life lived to its fullest. This concept plays an integral role in Carmen's fate in Act 4 when she defiantly charges Don Jose as the matador, Escamillo, dispatches a bull.

While living in Spain, attending bullfights, Kane-Parry had no idea that her experiences would inform her interpretation of a classic French opera. In fact, she had no idea that she would find herself involved with a professional opera production.

"I sang when I was young--and at one point was being trained to be an opera singer--but I decided that rock 'n roll was more fun," she explained. "Later, I was living in Russia. I was working as an actor and I got a gig with an opera company."

She lived in Russia from 1989 through the early '90s, during the final years and collapse of the Soviet Union. The opera company she worked with was small, one of the first that wasn't affiliated with the government. Through her work there, Kane-Parry found herself visiting towns that foreigners typically aren't allowed to see.

After returning to the United States--Los Angeles, specifically, where Kane-Parry accepted a position teaching theater at Cal State L.A.--she found herself unexpectedly working with opera again. The university asked her to direct a production of Gian Menotti's two-act The Medium. It wasn't a huge leap for Kane-Parry, who insists that she approached each theatrical production "on an operatic scale in terms of music and movement and universal themes."

When she learned that PRO would be performing Carmen, she decided to seriously assess the production.

"The question for me with any classical work is, 'Why is it classical?'" she explained. "'Why does it resonate?' There are bigger themes that speak to us beyond the narrative of these two characters."

One of her first decisions for this production was that movement must convey the various attitudes and personalities of the characters. Carmen's passionate nature must show through, even in the simple act of walking. The rest of the characters--soldiers, and especially MicaŒla, the woman Don Jose is supposed to marry--are physically more controlled.

And while Kane-Parry is approaching the production with a passion and energy reminiscent of its doomed heroine, she refuses to be identified with an operatic tradition that the modern plebeian might consider snobby or highbrow.

"I always joke that most of my opera education comes from Bugs Bunny. You know, 'Kill the rabbit! Kill the rabbit!'" she said. "It is critical to honor the music, the artist, the vision. But it is absolutely imperative for me that the work speaks to everyone and that this not be an elitist event. If you said to the average Joe on the street, 'Hey, let's go to the opera!' they'd look at you like, 'Hey, that's boring.' I don't think I have a right to tell anyone, 'You need to see this because it's classical.' This needs to, this must resonate with everyone."

INFOBOX: Tra la la

Pacific Repertory Opera performs Carmen April 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the PAC. Tickets cost between $22 and $60. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.propera.org, www.pacslo.org, or call 756-2787.


Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach has always wanted to run away and become a gypsy. Send train tickets or camels to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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