Opera North’s season launches at Leeds Grand Theatre this weekend with a new production of Carmen

With its showstopping numbers and large-scale set pieces, Carmen is the perfect  choice to kick off Opera North’s autumn season and to celebrate the long-awaited return to live music and performance.

Chrystal E Williams as Carmen in rehearsals for the production which opens this weekend. (Tom Arber).
Chrystal E Williams as Carmen in rehearsals for the production which opens this weekend. (Tom Arber).

This brand new production also offers a fresh take on the somewhat problematic storyline, turning the narrative on its head and putting the character of Carmen centre stage where she belongs..

So instead of it being the story of a naïve man (Don José) seduced by a manipulative femme fatale and driven to murder by sexual jealousy, it presents the story of a woman longing to be free and struggling to survive in a toxic male-dominated environment.

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“Carmen is often quite an elusive, almost invisible figure in the opera that bears her name and we don’t understand why she is doing what she is doing – that is because she is written very much from a male perspective of dangerous female sexuality, so I wanted to reclaim her character and tell the story from her point of view,” explains director Ed Dick.

Edward Dick (director) in the rehearsals for Opera North's upcoming production of Carmen. (Tom Arber).

“In our version we have made her a performer in a remote border town burlesque club and the sexy gypsy character of Carmencita is an act of construction, but behind the performance there is a real woman, with a child. There are things Carmen has to do in order to survive; I hope that starts to give a context to her behaviour.”

Generally regarded as one of the most popular operas of all time, Georges Bizet’s Carmen premiered in Paris in 1875 and was part of the opéra comique tradition, a forerunner of the modern musical.

“It is such an interesting piece,” says Dick. “It has great familiar numbers – the first half is just hit after hit – and dialogue but it also turns into something that is much more like Greek tragedy so it is a fascinating combination.

"By making Carmen a performer we are able to lean into the musical theatre side of it. It is a piece with misogyny at its centre – I wanted to deconstruct that and explore it while also giving the audience a fantastically entertaining night out by setting it in a place of performance and singing.”

While Dick has collaborated with Opera North before – he directed their critically-acclaimed production of Tosca in 2018 and in 2017 oversaw their much-admired reimagining of Hansel and Gretel – this is the first time he has worked with such a big chorus.

“They play a huge role in this and they make the most extraordinary sound,” says Dick. “It has been a monumental experience hearing them in the rehearsal room.”

He says that working on the production has been “a joy”, a reminder of how important live performance is and the unique potency of the collective response to a shared experience. “It is a primal thing that we need as communities,” he says.

“Everyone who works in theatre or goes to it understands the power of that live experience, especially in opera, where you have such huge forces at work – the orchestra, the chorus, the music and hugely high stakes stories. At its best opera can be the most fantastic shared art form, so it feels like such a great privilege to be doing this.”

At Leeds Grand Theatre, October 2, 9, 19, 21, 23, 26, 28, then touring. operanorth.co.uk