American tenor Brian Jagde discusses his performance in Georges Bizet’s infamous opera, the nomadic life of a singer and why the art form remains relevant today
Taken from the novel by Prosper Mérimée, Carmen, the opera by Georges Bizet, tells the story of the fall of Don José, a soldier who is seduced by the hedonistic, hot-tempered gypsy Carmen. Considered one of the greatest operas of all time, Carmen scandalised high-society when it was first performed in Paris in March 1875, and tragically it would only be in the wake of Bizet’s sudden death, three months later, that it would receive critical acclaim.
Set in Seville, the opera opens to Carmen leaving the cigarette factory where she works to sing to her fellow workers about her untameable heart – the famous Habanera – but it is there that she catches sight of Don José. When Carmen is arrested for attacking a woman with a knife, she seduces Don José as he guards her, encouraging him to run away from the army and hide in the mountains with her smuggler friends. Carmen, however, soon grows tired of Don José’s possessiveness and turns her attention to the dashing bullfighter Escamillo. In a jealous rage, Don José follows her to the bullring and stabs her, and Carmen dies in Escamillo’s arms.
Known for its vibrancy and colour, it is currently being performed at the Royal Opera House in London, staged by award-winning opera director Barrie Kosky. Carmen’s reputation for all-singing, all-dancing vivacity is brought to the fore with a minimal, unchanging set (a vast staircase the width of the stage) and almost vaudevillian-style choreography. Dividing critics in its first performance earlier this year, for its return to London the production sees a few important changes – shortening the voiceovers and removing a piece entirely – but the scale of the staging remains, as attested to by the physical demands placed on the chorus.
The American tenor Brian Jagde, who plays a moving, muscular and sensitive Don José, is at home in this lively staging, expertly rendering the conflict and eventual crisis of his character. Before the production opened earlier this month, Port spoke to Jagde about life as an opera singer, how he came to opera and the role the art form can play in the modern world.
How does it work as an opera singer performing in different productions around the world?
Well you’re kind of an independent contractor. You go from one job to another based on the schedule of a particular opera house and whether there’s a role that you are capable of playing. So for instance, I came to Carmen and the Royal Opera House from San Francisco, where I was playing Cavaradossi in an opera called Tosca, and I go from London to Palermo to play Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot. If the schedule opens up in certain ways based on the houses and the operas, and I have free time, then it all works out.
So it’s quite a nomadic lifestyle?
Very much so. Sometimes you’re in places for five days, sometimes three weeks, sometimes two months. I’ve been in London now for a month of rehearsals, and we have a month of performances before finishing up on 22nd December. I’m always on the move and it’s hard because we work six days a week, six hours a day generally, and rehearsals vary – we get the schedules the night before. But then you have your day free and you can explore the different cities. This is my third performance in London and I love coming back here – I always try to go back to the Tate and there’s always something to see in the city.
How did you come to opera?
It was quite an accident, actually. I’ve always loved to sing and began doing musicals in middle school and high school growing up. I loved performing but I really had no idea I would ever think of opera. When I left school I wasn’t sure whether I could really pursue a career in singing so I went to a school for computer science in business, which I hated terribly. I wanted to find a way out so went to an audition for a school where I could learn to sing classically – I had no idea that meant opera but with the first production I did there I fell in love. It was the Magic Flute and I was covering all these different rolls and working back stage, building the sets, hanging lights – it really made me appreciate all the whole process that goes into these productions.
I’d also never experienced the kind of acoustic you have with a live orchestra and opera. With musical theatre, everything is amplified with microphones, but opera is completely viral. It’s different from how you experience music normally – you hear it as well as feel it in your body. I loved that.
How different is this staging of Carmen?
It’s a highly choreographed production – almost a different take on the story of Carmen, focusing on an alternative interpretation of the show. It starts off like a cabaret, and there’s a lot of dancing. It’s quite a spectacle and very different from what you would see in a traditional setting, but that’s what I think Barry Kosky wanted to do – to turn it on its head.
How can opera continue to be relevant to everyone in the 21st century?
In America opera is still there, still being performed – there is an opera house in almost every city, but the size and scale of the production depends on the level of private donations. In Europe there’s a real tradition of keeping this art form alive in a different way. Opera was created in Europe and it’s more ingrained in a European lifestyle. It’s obviously not to the same extent as it was 50 years ago, but kids still grow up hearing opera, it’s still part of the culture and history. You go to any opera house in Europe and the audience is thrilled to be there; it’s harder to fill the seats in the States.
I’m trying to change that. The great thing about opera is that it’s kind of infectious. It makes you love it and when I’ve performed for kids all over America, across different states, they immediately perk up. They’ve never heard anything like it before. In New York, I work with a group that provides a space for children from underprivileged households to work on their homework and make art, and they are rewarded with opera. They are obsessed with it. It’s amazing to see how opera never goes out of style. If we want to make sure all of these different art forms that are struggling, survive, we just need to educate children in the music and the arts.
Carmen runs at the Royal Opera House until 22nd December