Carmen: 5 Things to Know
A dancing director, an opera’s evolution, a giant bull head, and more
ROB ASHFORD, DANCER
Before celebrated director-choreographer Rob Ashford became a Tony, Olivier, Emmy, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle winner who has worked with stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Daniel Radcliffe, he was a dancer himself, on Broadway, at the Metropolitan Opera, and elsewhere.
He studied dance at Point Park College in Pittsburgh while working in the corps de ballet at Pittsburgh Opera, and as he shared with HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers during a Monday Night Opera conversation, one of the operas he danced in was Bizet’s Carmen. “I just remember, at the time—doing it and thinking about it and watching it—and thinking, ‘there’s so much more dance in this. There should be so much more dance in this.’”
Ashford later switched career paths and became a director-choreographer, and HGO and Lyric Opera of Chicago co-commissioned him to create a new dance-filled version of the work. His Carmen made its premiere at HGO in 2014, in a production starring Ana María Martínez; it now returns as a revival to open HGO’s 2021-22 season.
Ashford says some of the most exciting works to choreograph and direct are the ones that aren’t known for having a lot of dance. “You have to find the dance and find the movement in it,” he explains, adding: “You know, movement and dance can be great adjectives for someone, they can describe someone so beautifully. … The most important thing about any dance or movement is that it tells a story. So, it’s not there for atmosphere.”
Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which the composer completed in 1875, originally included spoken dialogue. Paris had a handful of opera houses, but the main two were the Paris Opera and the Opéra-Comique. “The two were rather split in the style of opera that could be performed,” explains HGO Dramaturg Jeremy Johnson. “It used to be very prescriptive.”
Opéra-Comique employed a lighter musical style that included dialogue, which was considered firmly outside the realm of high art. “It was more of a family affair,” says Johnson. “People brought their children to Opéra-Comique, and whether the plot was comedic or tragic, the works were lighter, not as heavy or ‘serious.’ And there was always dialogue in between numbers. That was the structure at the time.”
Despite Carmen’s tragic story, Bizet never really wanted to write “serious” operas—that was Paris Opera territory, and he was a Comique man. “It was perhaps part of his personal insecurities,” explains Johnson, “that he did not consider himself good enough for the Paris Opera stage, but instead wanted to excel on the Comique stage.”
The opera’s premiere was not well-received. Bizet was contracted to adapt the work for the Vienna State Opera, which would not have accepted spoken dialogue, but he died before he had the chance. And so, his friend Ernest Guiraud picked up where he left off, replacing the dialogue with musical recitatives, per Vienna tradition. And that is how we got the version of Carmen that we know and love today, whose success, sadly, Bizet never got to witness.
A THANK-YOU TO THE ACADEMY
A dancer in HGO's Carmen (2014)
In addition to directing and choreographing a host of Broadway productions and films, Rob Ashford has choreographed and staged the Academy Awards several times, including in 2014, some weeks before Carmen premiered in Houston. In fact, many of the same dancers who appeared in HGO’s production also had been set to perform during the Oscars, until—we’ll let Mark C. Lear, HGO Associate Artistic Administrator, tell the rest:
“For the original mounting of this production of Carmen in spring 2014, HGO had already planned for the dancers to join our rehearsals a couple of weeks later than
the singer principals, just like we are planning this time,” he recalls. “In addition to directing-choreographing our Carmen, Rob Ashford had been engaged to choreograph the Academy Awards in Los Angeles right before Carmen in Houston.
“For the big dance number at the Oscars, he had the Academy Awards hire almost entirely the same company of dancers whom he had selected for us to engage for Carmen. The plan was for them to get a bit of a jump on Carmen in Los Angeles in between rehearsals for the Oscars. Well, as the time for the awards got closer, it was discovered that the whole show was running considerably longer than planned, so the big dance number was cut by the Academy Awards.
“With all this extra unused time on their hands under the Academy Awards contract, the dancers were able to thoroughly rehearse and polish Carmen prior to their arrival in Houston! We would like to thank the Academy for their contribution to the success of our Carmen production…”
NOT ALWAYS A HEROINE
When it comes to the character of Carmen, there are some things that today’s audiences and those from 1875 would agree on: she is compelling, powerful, seductive, and impossible to ignore. But that’s likely where the consensus ends.
The modern interpretation of Bizet’s opera and its libretto—written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée—diverges significantly from the creators’ original intent. While today’s audiences see a strong, independent woman seeking liberty above all else (and surrounded by a bunch of clueless men), audiences during Bizet’s time saw Carmen as so inappropriate as to be vile. Everything that happens to her, past thinking went, is the result of her own bad behavior. In other words, she’s got it coming.
“A 21st-century, post-#MeToo opera industry will frame Carmen as the independent feminist and Don José as the possessive villain,” explains HGO Dramaturg Jeremy Johnson, “yet the historical and cultural contexts in which Mérimée and Bizet wrote and adapted this story place the blame squarely on Carmen’s shoulders.”
THE DANCING BULL
The bull dancer from HGO's 2014 production
Memorably, in Rob Ashford’s production, one of the principal dancers wears a giant bull head. The head was designed by Carmen’s original costume designer Julie Weiss and built by Houston-based artist Afsaneh Aayani, who makes masks and puppets, among other things. You’ll notice that whenever Bizet’s “Motive of Fate” theme plays, the bull dancer is on stage, a reminder of the fate that awaits Carmen at Escamillo’s bullfight.
The centrality of the bull to Ashford’s original 2014 production can be traced to his earliest inspiration for directing and choreographing the opera. In a presentation he gave at the time, he explained where it came from:
“When I first found out I was doing Carmen, for some reason I kept being drawn to Picasso’s Guernica (below). That painting, which I’ve always loved, I just kept going back to it and back to it. Because it’s so beautiful, and it’s so brutal. And I really think Carmen is that. It’s so beautiful, and it’s so brutal.”
The panel of the painting with a bull and a mourning woman with a dead child in her arms reminded him of Carmen, Escamillo, and Don José, and it “really became a jumping off point to try to decide how we design the show.” Together with scenic designer David Rockwell, Ashford drew on the same events as Picasso, the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, to inform his Carmen’s more modern look.