Interviews, photos and video: OKC's Painted Sky Opera performing post-apocalyptic version of the classic 'Tragedy of Carmen'
An abbreviated version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Opera 'Beyond Thunderdome': Painted Sky closes third season with post-apocalyptic take on 'The Tragedy of Carmen'
For the fifth time, Caitlin McKechney is embodying one of opera’s most iconic characters: the passionate, free-spirited and ultimately ill-fated gypsy Carmen.
Instead of the usual fiery red gown, though, Painted Sky Opera Company’s new production of “The Tragedy of Carmen” has her swapping swirling skirts for form-fitting pants, sturdy boots and a leather utility belt, all devised for survival rather than seduction.
“It’s great because it refreshes your ideas about the story and the character and gives you something new to play with. So, it’s a real gift, I think, as an actor, to have just a different element to play with,” said McKechney, who is making her Oklahoma debut in the final production of Painted Sky’s third season.
Seizing the stage at the Civic Center’s Freede Little Theatre Friday and May 19, the Oklahoma City opera company’s reimaging of the 19th-century classic about obsession, desire and betrayal is set in a post-apocalyptic future with stark sets and scrappy costumes inspired by the “Mad Max” films.
“For me, just even having tried on that costume … will inform this character. I’m a fan of ‘The Walking Dead,’ and I like those kinds of movies,” said the New York City-based mezzo soprano. “I think if you have survived in the post-apocalyptic world, there’s like a hardness to these people, so I’ve already felt as though it has informed my character choices with her, that she may have a little less girlishness and is a little more cutthroat. So, I feel that energy.”
Resetting a classic
Painted Sky co-founder and Artistic Director Rob Glaubitz said “Carmen” has been the most-requested title of the company’s patrons.
“Everyone knows the name ‘Carmen.’ The problem with ‘Carmen’ being a smaller-scale opera company in a theater the size of the Freede is that ‘Carmen’ generally needs a cast of 45 people, a big orchestra, and it’s not really an ideal kind of show for the Freede. But I have always loved ‘Carmen,” said Glaubitz, who is directing the show.
“In the 1980s, the opera director Peter Brook took (Georges) Bizet's three-hour-long opera, and he condensed it into about 90 minutes and four singers. Using a smaller orchestra, he kept the same story and a lot of the same famous tunes and made this very fast-paced, energetic, exciting version of ‘Carmen’ that tells the same story. We thought it was a perfect show to end our season with. … It’s definitely one of those shows that’s like the end of a fireworks display.”
While going over the score of Brook’s version – which maintains the beloved arias "Habanera" and the "Toreador Song,” music that has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows, from “The Bad News Bears” and “Up” to “Tom & Jerry” and “Family Guy” – Glaubitz said he was struck by the show’s urgency.
“This version of ‘Carmen’ has a more desperate feel to it. It’s a much more direct feel. It feels like everybody in the show is hanging on with their fingernails to their lives, and just the whole thing made society … feel like it was much more tenuous than the original ‘Carmen,’” he said.
“To me, it doesn’t feel like 19th-century Seville (Spain), it felt like a society that was kind of on the edge of falling apart. For whatever reason, because of the way my brain works, immediately I jumped to the ‘Mad Max’ movies because they have a very similar feel to them, that kind of feeling like everybody is more driven by their base desire to survive than anything else.”
It isn’t the first time the fledgling opera company has shifted the setting of a classic. Philadelphia baritone Tom Sitzler previously appeared in Painted Sky’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s 1900 tale “Tosca,” which was set in 1930s Spain during the Spanish Revolution rather than Italy at the turn of the 20th century.
“I’ve done several operas that were not in your traditional setting,” Sitzler said. “I kind of like taking those because opera is about the grand stage and about the spectacle, but then sometimes the spectacle can get in the way of the story. What I like about how we’re kind of changing the story around here is really pinpointing one aspect of what the story is about with ‘The Tragedy of the Carmen’ and that is sort of survival. Everybody in this world is really just trying to survive to the next day.”
The core of the story remains the same: the captivating Carmen persuades the soldier Don José (Norman-based tenor Joel Burcham, a Painted Sky returning favorite) to release her from prison and then desert his post after he attacks his commander in her defense. He turns away from the innocent maiden Micaëla (soprano Hanna Brammer in her Painted Sky debut) and pursues Carmen, who tires of Don José’s obsessive nature and leaves him for the bullfighter Escamillo (Sitzler). The enraged Don José follows Carmen into the arena in which Escamillo is fighting and confronts her, with tragic results.
In the show’s dystopian future, Sitzler said all the bulls are dead, so Escamillo instead becomes a sort of gladiator.
“And I get a hammer, a giant sledgehammer, which is my weapon of choice,” he said.
One reason “The Tragedy of Carmen” can be shifted into the future is that it remains tragically relevant, especially in the #MeToo era.
“Don Jose, he can’t handle that she’s decided to move on to somebody else. Carmen really, to me, she was an original feminist role model. … She was just a free woman and she did what she wanted to do, which at that time was not heard of,” McKechney said. “Opera, really, it is much more relevant than a lot of people give it credit for, and people just don’t know it because they have these preconceived notions.”
Picking a post-apocalyptic setting, which is on trend, can make the art form more accessible, she said, especially when it means cool costumes like those Alyssa Couturier-Herndon designed for the show.
“It’s amazing. I love mine so much, and my fiancé was like, ‘Can you buy that?’ He’s super into it,” McKechney said with a laugh. “It’s awesome.”
Painted Sky Opera’s “The Tragedy of Carmen”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. May 19.
Where: Freede Little Theatre at Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.
Tickets and information: www.paintedskyopera.org.