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Rebellious bird

Love awaits the sensual Carmen

Caitlin McKechney stars in Tacoma Opera’s production of Carmen. Photo courtesy Tacoma Opera

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It's become a cliché to say this, but Georges Bizet's Carmen is an opera custom-made for people who say they don't like opera. It's an opéra comique -- a form in which choruses and arias are separated by spoken dialogue, ancestral to American-style musical theater -- based on a short novel by Prosper Mérimée. The title character is a young Romani (Gypsy) woman who works at a cigarette factory in Seville, Spain. The Royal Tobacco Factory was a real place, now on the University of Seville campus, that employed up to 6,000 cigarreras in the year of the opera's first performance, 1875. Opening night received mixed-to-negative reviews. Bizet died of rheumatoid heart failure after the 33rd performance, at which point the show abruptly closed. Bizet would never learn of his show's increasing popularity in Europe and the U.S., by which time its dialogue was recomposed as recitative by Bizet's pal Ernest Guiraud.

Carmen herself is a fiery sex symbol who proclaims (in her famous Act I aria, the Habanera) she's a rebellious bird, untamed and given to loving whomever, whenever and however she pleases. So it's no surprise when soldier Don José and toreador (bullfighter) Escamillo become life-changingly infatuated with her. What was surprising to 19th-century audiences was the tragic turns she meets along the way, as it was understood that opéra comique implied happy endings.

Noel Koran, director of the upcoming Tacoma Opera production, explains the difficulty of casting its title role: "What's required for the role is not just the ability to sing well -- it's low in the (mezzo-soprano) register -- but also it needs to be a person who is very good dramatically ... They need to be able to express quite a bit of sexuality, because it is a highly sensual role. The whole story is about an incredibly attractive woman who drives men crazy."

"Caitlin McKechney (La Périchole) is absolutely perfect for the role of Carmen," said Koran. "I feel very blessed in many ways that I have such a fine cast." Tenor Timothy Janecke (Yevgeny Onegin) plays Don José, a character who's "the antihero for the show. He's the protagonist ... and he drives the show. It's one of the most demanding tenor roles in the literature." Escamillo introduces himself with the much-beloved Toreador Song.

"The most important thing I look for when I'm directing," said Koran, "is to tell the story as accurately as possible ... I spent a number of years acting and singing on my own, so I understand what the acting process is all about. Sometimes I think I'm more of an acting coach than a stage director." Carmen, the middle show in Tacoma Opera's 50th-anniversary season, will be guest-conducted by Symphony Tacoma's Sarah Ioannides and features dancers from Tacoma City Ballet. "Bizet changed the culture," Koran concluded. "He was ahead of his time."

CARMEN, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 3 and Friday, Feb. 9; 2 p.m., Sun., Feb. 11, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $25-$110, 253.591.5894,

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