Bullfighters, Barihunks and Bravado

Tradegy of Carmen

Syracuse Opera begins its season with an intimate version of The Tragedy of Carmen

The music and story of The Tragedy of Carmen is some of the most loved in opera and in popular culture. The tale of the lovelorn gypsy, naive soldier, childhood sweetheart and daring Escamillo has been brought back to life in various films, including director Otto Preminger’s 1954 Carmen Jones with Dorothy Dandridge and a 2001 recreation starring Beyonce Knowles, Carmen: A Hip-Hopera.

Syracuse Opera’s season opens with its rendition of Peter Brook’s The Tragedy of Carmen, an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera, performed in French with projected English titles. Brook’s 1981 version strips down the orchestra, composed of Symphoria members, eliminates the chorus and removes the secondary roles to allow a more intimate look into the psychology of the four main characters.

Although the music remains the same, the focus on the main players will be further amplified by the smaller performance space. After a sold-out run of Sweeney Todd last season, the Mulroy Civic Center’s Carrier Theater has become a prime performance location.

“People loved Sweeney Todd,” producing and artistic director Douglas Kinney Frost says. “Tickets for this are selling well, too. It’s a good way to balance traditional with counter-opera culture. It’s a well-known story and music, but performed and set in a way that meets the needs of people who want a new thing.”

The classic tale will also feature a talent new to the Syracuse Opera scene: “barihunk” Wes Mason.

“There’s this thing in the opera world,” Kinney Frost says. “Now, it’s more like a movement, but there’s this blog where they choose ‘barihunks.’ The idea is that he’s a sexy hunk of a guy and he’s a baritone. I’m very proud to have Escamillo as a barihunk. {Mason} loves it. He’s very flattered. And he’s one of the originals.”

Mason and Kinney Frost met while Mason was studying at the University of Michigan in 2007. After working together and realizing they had an instant connection, both have been seeking an opportunity to work together since. Carmen presented that perfect situation.

“I’m thrilled they’re bringing me here and we’re working together again,” Mason says. “He {Kinney Frost} is a downto-earth and stand-up guy. His personality and attitude and dedication and care for the art form is exactly what you want from someone running an organization.”

Mason, 27, who began as a rock’n’roll musician in his teens, fell in love with opera around the time he went to college. After studying it in school and working professionally, he decided to further pursue an operatic education and attended the Academy of Vocal Arts, in Philadelphia. The school is selective: No more than 30 students are enrolled at any given time and all are on full scholarships. Mason completed the program in May.

Tradegy of Carmen

Tradegy of Carmen

He comes to Syracuse Opera with a lot of excitement for the toreador part he’ll get to play, a role he hasn’t played before though he’s been in Carmen almost as many times as the ultra-popular La Boheme. Like Kinney Frost, Mason is thrilled at the opportunity of the intimacy of this production.

“It gives us the opportunity to dig into the characters and treat the acting and relationships more like a film,” he explains. “Usually operatic performing is larger than life. We had to turn these characters on their heads. Escamillo is a rock star-bullfighter-cocky guy. I have to figure out more of his motivations, the traditions of bullfighting, traditions in Spain. I’ve watched a lot of videos just trying to understand the mentality that comes with it. I’d say a major NBA star or rock star is the equivalent. These guys would walk into a room and people would go crazy.”

In addition to Mason, the production will feature soprano Colleen Daly as Micaela, tenor Brent Reilly Turner as Don Jose and mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo as Carmen.

“It’s her first time as Carmen, which is a big deal,” Kinney Frost says. “It’s a legendary opera character. She’s a fantastic singer and actress {and it’s good it’s her first time in the role because} everyone has to rethink if they’ve done the big show to do this intimate version. There’s no room for emotional folly or being over the top. It would look laughable. It’s all about realism and emotional connection.”

It’s also about physical strength and incredible talent. “What you’re experiencing {at an opera} isn’t just musical and artistic,” Mason says. “It’s almost a sporting event. There’s physical training. It’s the same discipline and work.”

It’s also worth “unplugging” to experience. “We spend a lot of time plugged in today,” Mason continues. “We’re in front of screens, computers, phones, and it’s affecting us in a lot of ways. To sit in a theater and experience a live performance, I think, is important to us as a culture and as human beings. When you see a play or musical, those are wonderful and touching, but there’s nothing like being moved by the human voice. To have someone’s unamplified instrument, their body, to feel it in your rib cage and heart. It transcends time. I can’t think of anything that even comes close to that experience.”

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