My Life as Carmen
Hello internet friends! I’m Kara Cornell, mezzo-soprano and the unofficial diva blogger for Opera Theater! I’ve been in Pittsburgh for almost two weeks, as Opera Theater is pre-rehearsing their summer production of CARMEN. The five principal characters (Carmen, Michaela, Don Jose, Escamillo and Zuniga) are rehearsing for school outreach shows on February 23rd and 24th. Then we’ll return in June for Summerfest, adding the rest of the cast and the rest of the drama.
Rehearsals are starting to get intense for me, but I knew they would! Jonathan Eaton pushed me out of my comfort zone last season when I sang “Orfeus” in ORFEUS AND EURIDICE. He taught me to be genuine and organic every moment I was on stage, and I ended up learning a whole lot about opera acting. When Opera Theater offered me the role of “Carmen” (aka one of the sexiest opera characters ever!) I jumped at the opportunity. I knew Jonathan would help me connect to this infamous gypsy woman; forcing me to discover what it’s like to be crazy, superstitious and sensuous - of course while singing at the same time! I have to say that I am starting to really get “Carmen”… I’m fairly certain that people who saw me in ORFEUS will have no idea I’m the same singer.
Oh, and it’s definitely worth mentioning that the other principal singers are fantastic! This is going to be a hot production of CARMEN - yay!
Today our truncated CARMEN cast (minus Zuniga and our gypsy dancer) did a stumble-through of everything we’ve blocked thus far. I have to say I was impressed with how much we’ve done in less than 2 weeks of rehearsals. Next week we’ll just stage the few remaining scenes, and then polish it all.
My focus for all remaining rehearsals will be to embody the essence of Carmen… always walking, running, dancing, fighting and singing like Carmen, and NOT like Kara, aka a well-behaved New Yorker who rarely loses her temper. It will definitely happen, especially since Jonathan is helping me.
I brought Carmen’s castanets with me so I can practice during our day off tomorrow. Tra la la la…
So, at the end of this month of pre-rehearsals, Opera Theater is going to be performing 2 kid friendly shows of Carmen (Well, as kid friendly as Carmen can get, anyway!) at the library in the town of Carnegie. In preparation for these shows, Jamie Flora (tenor extraordinaire and my fabulous co-star) and I are traveling to 6 schools so we can educate them a bit on the opera.
Last week we started with The Imani Christian Academy, and we had a great time! The high school age students were extremely friendly, enthusiastic and well-behaved. (They assured us that they would applaud loudly when they see the show next week!)
Today we went to two middle schools… all I will say is that our experiences today were not as pleasant. However, what made me smile is seeing a select few tween girls swoon over Jamie’s rendition of The Flower Song. At the first school, our pianist was provided with a half-sized synthesizer to play for us, and STILL the girls fell in love :)
I also must give a shout out to our pianist, Karen Moskowitz, who did a lovely job of accompanying us - especially at the school who provided her with a half-sized toy synthesizer to play on!
The founder of Opera Theater, Mildred Miller, had a huge international singing career singing some of the juiciest mezzo repertoire, including… CARMEN! I studied with Mildred on and off when I was a student at Carnegie Mellon University. (She would fill in for the late Mimi Lerner, who was my primary teacher - I’ll be blogging about Mimi later.)
During my junior year (I was studying with Mildred full time that year because Mimi had taken a leave of absence.) Mildred said to me: “Kaaaaahrah dahling, I wonder if you will sing Carmen one day…. [she examines me and intensely ponders]… yes, I think you can, because you have a big round face. See there, [pointing finger at my big round face] you can wear a wig and your face will be expressive from the back of the house.”
I recently had lunch with Mildred, and she has no recollection of this hilarious conversation.
It’s also worth noting that Mildred knows the role of Carmen in quite a few languages - most amusing is her “Habanera” in German! (I asked her to sing it for us the other day in rehearsal - she still knows every word!)
And now, for your listening pleasure, a YouTube link of Mildred singing the Habanera (it starts at 2:06) It’s in French, not German!
I’ve done Carmen before - first I did Peter Brook’s Tragedy of Carmen, and then I covered the role in a big house with the childrens chorus, full orchestra and all that other fancy stuff. Yes, I did do a bit of choreography in both, but it only consisted of some sexy stomping while on a table and some tambourine shaking. Carmen with Opera Theater has been different, as I could have predicted!
Jonathan Eaton hired dancer Olivia Kissel to be our choreographer and also a character in Carmen - she is acting as a comrade to Carmen, but also as a mystical character (we are calling her “fate” in rehearsals) who is using some sort of magic to stir up the plot.
Having Olivia involved in this production is wonderful for me, as I am in NO WAY a dancer, and am grateful for all of these free lessons! (I even attend one of her belly dancing classes in Squirrel Hill!) At moments I feel like an utter fool when I try to imitate her beautiful moves - I want to yell “I am an opera singer, not a flamenco dancer! Can’t I just sing and YOU do the dancing, like every other company does when they do Carmen?!” However, this isn’t what Opera Theater is about. No park and bark singers allowed - which is why I was so excited to be involved - I KNEW I’d learn, but the process is making my brain (and feet) hurt!
Olivia is SO patient with me, and more encouraging than any other dance teacher I’ve had. (She’s also becoming a good friend, which is awesome because she’s super cool!) If any of you out there are interested in belly dancing, I highly recommend taking Olivia’s class! No experience necessary.
Here’s her website: www.oliviakissel.com
Just to clarify: when y’all see Carmen, I won’t be doing as much crazy dancing as Olivia (that would take years of dance training!) but I will be embodying the style of flamenco and gypsy dance into everything I do, with some dancing from time to time. If you think I look good, congratulate Olivia, because it’s all her doing!
It’s been over a week since we performed CARMEN at The Carnegie Library in Carnegie, PA. Since returning home I’ve been swept up with the game I always play after a month of singing out of town… it’s called catch-up on my real life! However, I have NOT forgotten about CARMEN at all, especially since we’re doing the mainstage show in the summer!
So we performed CARMEN for kids this time around - ranging from approximately ages 10 to 18. As I wrote in a previous post, Jamie Flora (my awesome Don Jose) and I visited a bunch of schools the week prior to our performances, and some of the schools… well, some were not well behaved. Even the interested classes had a few loud and disruptive ones in the bunch. So I was prepared for all sorts of noises and lack of enthusiasm while we were performing.
However, these kids were really well behaved during our shows! Of course they didn’t always clap enthusiastically during the performance (after an aria, for instance) but they really seemed to be captivated by everything! CARMEN is a pretty entertaining opera, if you ask me, so I’m assuming they were all shocked when they saw and heard what was going on in front of them.
After each show we all had a Q and A with the kids. This is always fun, as I think kids can be a true barometer of accessibility, common sense and entertainment in a show. So here are some of my favorite questions that the kids asked:
Top questions Jamie and I got when visiting schools:
1. Are you guys married in real life?
2. Can you sing in your “real” voice? (After we sang an aria from the opera - Jamie then sang the Flower Aria as a country song, which I always find amusing! These kids can’t understand that some people’s “real” voices are operatic, and not like pop singers on the radio.)
3. Can you sing a really high note? Can you break glass?
Most interesting/funny questions we were asked after our fully staged performances:
1. Are Carmen and Don Jose married in real life? (Yes, we got this every time… wouldn’t it be NICE if opera singers could always perform with their spouses?)
2. How come Carmen doesn’t just leave Don Jose at the end, instead of staying and fighting with him and then getting killed?
3. How come Don Jose doesn’t just go home at the end and have a happy life?
4. Did it hurt when you were all fighting? Did Micaela really get stabbed in the face? (in our version Carmen slashed Micaela on the cheek after a choreographed fight)
5. Did Don Jose really love Carmen, or was he just under the magic of the flower?
My next visit to Pittsburgh will be in April, when we perform CARMEN for pre-K! I cannot imagine what those kids will ask us…
Back in April I spent a long weekend in Pittsburgh to perform a 45 minute CARMEN for an audience of pre-K kids. As you can imagine, I was fairly apprehensive about this. How EXACTLY does one perform Carmen without giving 3 year olds nightmares? Not only Carmen, but Jonathan Eaton’s version of Carmen that we had rehearsed and performance during the entire month of February…?!
But… it was amazing as well as totally hilarious. The day before the show, Christina Farrell, the director of OPERA IGNITE, sat in on our rehearsal and gave us some good advice on how to engage the kids - she had been prepping them with music from the opera, specific dance moves and also explaining the “story”. Here is the the pre-K version of Carmen:
“Once upon a time there was a girl named Carmen. Carmen loved to dance, but she was also very bossy to all of her friends because she make them do dishes, scrub the floors and clean up her messes. Her closest friends were Don Jose: a soldier who likes to march, and Escamillo: a bull-fighter who likes to clap while singing. Because Carmen was so bossy, her friends wouldn’t dance with her anymore, so she eventually agreed to be nice.”
The biggest thing that surprised me during the performance is that none of the kids held their ears - they instead sang and danced along with us, and all seemed to be having fun. After the show, they all wanted photos and autographs, and were looking at me as though I were a princess, not a wild gypsy.
For me, the most hilarious part of the performance was when Jamie Flora and I made up new words on the fly - well, it was more that HE made up the words while singing directly into my face and I tried my hardest not to giggle. One ad lib I still remember was during the Seguidilla duet. The original English text is “Carmen, will you love me?” Jamie made up the text “Carmen, will you… please-try-to-stop being-so-bossy?”
I can’t wait to be back this summer - see you all at the Hillman Center!
Last month I had the great luck to be in Manhattan during the week run of Telemann’s ORFEUS, where our very own Dan Teadt sang the title role with New York City Opera. Having worked with Dan in February during our school shows of CARMEN, I made a point of going to see the production.
Dan was wonderful - a heartfelt and moving Orfeus, his love for Euridice was tangible to the audience, who witnessed his grueling travels into the underworld to rescue his new bride from her untimely death. His voice was warm, emotional and perfect for the part of the young lover.
Dan will be performing the role of “Escamillo” in CARMEN - THE GYPSY, as well as the title role in CANDIDE this summer with OTP Summerfest. Pittsburgh is lucky to have someone with his talent performing in the area - if you want to witness some fabulous singing and acting, you’ve gotta come see and hear Dan perform this summer at the Hillman Center!
Yesterday the cast of CARMEN had a final dress rehearsal. Instead of going home and relaxing after a particularly long and sweaty afternoon, I decided to attend opening night of MAGIC FLUTE… what a good choice I made!
Seriously, why were the seats not totally filled?! People don’t know what they’re missing - the production is fantastic! If you haven’t done so already, RESERVE YOUR TICKETS!
The production was clean, inventive and filled with some particularly stunning moments - most notably The Queen of the Night arias, sung by resident artist Sara Salas. As a mezzo-soprano, I am always in awe of sopranos who can sing those high notes with ease - however, Sara also added strong motivation choices within her arias, so the crazy high notes had a true dramatic purpose, rather than “now listen to the amazing coloratura sing some high F’s.”
Dimitrie Lazich, in my opinion, stole the show as Papageno. His fine acting, comedic timing and IMPECCABLE English diction allowed me to rest my Carmen-filled brain and just enjoy myself. He had the full audiences attention whenever he was on stage.
Honestly though, everyone was fantastic in this production - Juan Jose de Leon and resident artist Sabrina Laney Warren were well cast as the young lovers Pamina and Tamino. Conductor Bernard McDonald did a wonderful job with the orchestra. The chorus, consisting of resident and young artists, was really fine!
So… take your kids - take your love - take your Grandma - just GO SEE FLUTE.
P.S. - CARMEN is sold out tonight for our opening - yay!