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The Andalusian Material Girl: Carmen and Madonna have more in common than you might think

A woman in a white blouse, black corset and bright red skirt stands behind jail bars. She extends her right hand to a man seated at a desk. He is singing to her and wearing a military-looking uniform.
Jordyn Marie Coyle
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MIOpera
Melina Jaharis, right, and Evan K. Brown, star as Carmen and Don José in MIOpera's production of "Carmen" this weekend at Heartland Community College.

MIOpera’s summer season is centered on strong female characters, namely Maria von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” last month, and now, with "Carmen."

“I consider her the modern-day Madonna,” said Tracy Koch, co-founder and artistic director of MIOpera. “She’s the one doing everything that everybody wishes they could do, or wants to do, but doesn’t have the guts."

“Carmen” runs this weekend at the Astroth Community Center at Heartland Community College in Normal. The performance repeats Aug. 6 at the Scottish Rite Theatre in Peoria.

Premiered in 1875, Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” is a relative outlier in its genre. Bizet straddled two eras, forming a bridge between the opera comique style and more recognizable opera verismo works of composers like Giacomo Puccini.

And Carmen herself is not the typical ingenue. A gypsy, she seduces a soldier, Don José, before tossing him to the curb for another guy.

“Someone you meet that’s really in control of their sexuality and knows who they are comes off as being intimidating” said Koch, who draws a comparison between Carmen and the #MeToo movement.

“Some women will look at Carmen as a character and be turned off by her,” she said. “But then if you look at her from our modern-day eyes, you’ll say, wait, she’s just like me! She just wants freedom to be, freedom to choose what happens to her body, freedom to choose who she loves.”

Spoiler: It does not end well for our heroine, but hey, it was the 1800s, after all.

Bizet was French, but “Carmen” is set in the south of Spain — Seville, to be exact. Part of Andalusia, the region was home to Roma, North African and Indian people, whose cultures merged in magical ways. This is the birthplace of Flamenco — the land of bullfighting, fans and ruffled skirts.

To be clear: "Carmen" is not Flamenco. That Seville was exoticized in the music, ballets and operas created further north at that time is not surprising. Bizet’s interpretation, however — inspired by a novella written by another French guy — has withstood the test of time, a testament to its brilliance. From what I can tell, Sevillians generally embrace Carmen and Bizet's gorgeous score.

Koch enjoys exploring the concept of “other” in her work as MIOpera’s resident director — a theme that is very much present in “Carmen.”

“It’s not about color or economic status,” she said. “It’s me versus them. That’s what is happening in ‘Carmen.’ You have this band of gypsies against the people who live in the ‘normal’ society. Because they are different and choose to live a different lifestyle doesn’t make it right or wrong, but they’re seen as being outcasts. That’s what we don’t want to do in our society today. Just because someone is different doesn’t mean they’re an outcast. We need to embrace those differences.”

“Carmen” was Bizet’s final work; he died shortly after the opera’s premiere and thus did not witness its long-standing success.

“The music is so powerful,” said Koch, adding the opera will be sung in French with English supertitles projected on the proscenium.

“You will totally know what they’re saying. And the music will carry you away. When you hear the music of Bizet, you know what he’s talking about,” she said.

MIOpera’s production of “Carmen” runs two performances only 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Astroth Community Center at Heartland Community College in Normal. For tickets and more information visit miopera.net.

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Lauren Warnecke is a correspondent for WGLT, focusing on arts and culture.
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