No Roses or Rosaries for Carmen and Carmélites

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Back in April, I caused a stir in certain quarters by suggesting that Paris is now the opera capital of Europe and perhaps the world. Opera executives in their suites at the large companies in major cities read the first paragraph (and perhaps not even that) of the article and assumed that I was comparing one big theater with another. I was talking about the entire operatic landscape in each city. Although Zurich, Barcelona, and Milan have wonderful principal theaters, there is not much else around them.

In giving Paris the edge over New York, I was looking at the depth and diversity of what is on offer in the many venues that present opera in both cities rather than pitting the Met against the Paris Opera. (If you must know my opinion on the head-to-head, the Met wins, though not by many lengths.) Right now it is possible to see full seasons of really good, provocative opera productions with top-notch casts in at least seven Parisian theaters. New York does not have that. We have a greater pool of operatic talent than Paris, but the French capital is one of many European cities that can cast a wide net to bring in excellent performers from around the continent. New York has many more companies than Paris but not the audience support or much willingness to embrace daring artistic choices. Some of our small companies present one or two operas a season, but conventional mini-stagings of standard repertory opera do not advance the cause of opera in our city.  Other companies are more adventurous and merit our attention and support.

This is why I am so interested in the upcoming season, from August 17-26, of New York’s Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble. Founded in 2000 by Artistic Director Christopher Fecteau and Administrative Director Karen Rich, the company’s initial goal was not to be an opera company but a place to train young artists in complete roles. It has evolved so that it stages two productions each summer that allows young singers to do roles before audiences.

This, in itself, would make Dell’Arte sound like many "Hey! Let’s-put-on-an-opera!" troupes except that Rich and Fecteau believe that part of their mission is to identify promising young directors and coaches who will approach standard repertory in neither the most traditional way nor choose a concept into which a masterpiece must be force-fed. Bizet’s Carmen (the most standard repertory opera one can name) will be directed by 25-year-old Knud Adams while Poulenc’s masterpiece, Dialogues des Carmélites, will be directed by 24-year-old Victoria Crutchfield. These operas are associated with Paris, but I am excited they will be done in New York.

Last week I had the chance to meet both directors and was quite impressed. Adams, who directed Puccini’s Suor Angelica for Dell’Arte last year, told me "I am quite aware of what audiences think of Carmen. Everyone who has seen a familiar piece thinks they know it, but I don’t feel the burden of presenting a purist version. I can more rigorously pursue my own idea."

His idea, in general terms, draws on the fact that the performance will take place at the East Thirteenth Street Theatre (136 East 13th Street), not far from Union Square. The singers will portray members of the Occupy Wall Street movement who will have arrived from a nearby protest with the intention of performing Carmen

In other words, it is not Carmen set in Occupy Wall Street, but people with the ideals of that movement who choose to stage the opera. A big, and important, difference. Gestures, props and imagery will be more "Occupy" than 19th Century Seville, but it is about Carmen and not about "Occupy."

Adams continued, "We have discovered a simple, direct, aggressive, rebellious way of telling the story. We politicize the philosophy of Carmen (the character and the opera). In the "Habanera," Carmen’s anthem, she advocates a philosophy not just of sensuality but valuing freedom and love over convention and establishment." To Adams, "Carmen is a Patti Smith character, outwardly sexual, a poet and provocative."

Victoria Crutchfield, who is directing Dialogues des Carmélites, said, "Occupy Wall Street is street theater. When you start to perform your politics, it becomes part of your lifestyle. I remember reading about 'Occupy' and people relying on the power of the human voice unaided by amplification. This means there is hope for opera."

Crutchfield, the daughter of conductor Will Crutchfield and soprano Debra Vanderlinde,  noted that "These two operas are different in their place in the canon. Carmélites is well-known to people who know opera while Carmen is known to almost everyone." What appeals to her in Poulenc’s opera is that "everyone learns something. It is a coming-of-age story for Blanche. Marie learns to accept humiliation and then accept humility. Madame de Croissy realizes that it is insufficient to achieve 'detachment'--one must ultimately detach from one’s detachment."

She said that “Audiences love Carmélites because it contains so much mystery. The characters have mysteries that are sometimes obscure to us. We see people going through struggles.” Crutchfield added that "Sister Constance is the ingenue, but she is the ingenue who has the key to the mystery. I don’t see her as an annoying chatterbox, as she is often portrayed."

"My nuns are empowered women," said Crutchfield. However, in keeping with the idea of mystery, the characters will not have a specificity that will present the characters as, say, the Nuns on the Bus. "This is a pretty un-Catholic Carmélites, not because the Catholicism is unimportant, but because you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate it."

But Crutchfield has infused a contemporary spirit into the singers playing these nuns at the time of the French Revolution. "Everything I have read about the current conflict between American nuns and the Church hierarchy has suggested to me that very many Americans, Catholic and not, see nuns as powerful women who deserve our respect and support."

Karen Rich observed that "Both operas depict women in the natural state of disadvantage that women are in, but not accepting that state." Crutchfield said that the nuns’s choice to take vows rather than become wives and mothers is a notable political choice. "They are wives and mothers to one another. There are resonances with Knud’s take on Carmen in that both have a communal aspect."

Both productions have been double-cast. All of the singers receive movement training, language coaching and work with musical coaches and Christopher Fecteau, who will conduct both works. Each singer is doing his or her complete role for the first time in these productions. Knud Adams remarked, “I have been amazed at how directable and eager these young singers are and their willingness to be bold.”

With a strong musical and directorial focus in this low-budget company, operagoers will not encounter big production values. The operas have been directed for the space they are in (150 seats in the audiences), rather than seeming like shrunken versions of productions for big opera houses.

Said Rich, with a grin, "We take great pride in underpaying incredibly talented people." In compensation, audiences should expect riveting music and theater and low ticket prices ($30; $20 for students and seniors, available online). Carmen will be performed on August 17, 23 and 25 at 8 p.m., August 19 at 3 p.m.; Dialogues des Carmélites will be performed on August 18 and 24 at 8 p.m., August 26 at 3 p.m.

Dell'Arte is a company that has benefited from fund-raising through a Kickstarter campaign, raising $3,226 and exceeding its goal of $3,000. Do you see Kickstarter and its small voluntary donations as a viable alternative to traditional funding from government and private sources or might it discourage traditional donors from giving support to small arts organizations?