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"Carmen" performance addresses ageless struggles of race, social class and gender

Kristin Chávez, the guest artist playing Carmen at the UF Opera Theatre production this weekend, has performed the role at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in the past. (Courtesy Anthony Offerle)
Kristin Chávez, the guest artist playing Carmen at the UF Opera Theatre production this weekend, has performed the role at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in the past. (Courtesy Anthony Offerle)

The University of Florida Opera Theatre, UF Symphony Orchestra and UF Performing Arts bring Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” to the stage at the Phillips Center Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. This will be the program’s first in-person production after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Carmen” is set in Seville, Spain, and tells a passion-filled story of Carmen, an independent spirit who refuses to be told how to live her life.

When she crosses paths with the young corporal Don José, drama ensues. Although the opera will be performed entirely in French, subtitles in English will be displayed above the stage.  

“Opera is just this incredible art form that just tells so much of a deeper story because it's not like musical theater where you're singing in English. And everyone can understand every word that you're saying," said Codi Linafelter, a member of the “Carmen” ensemble and understudy for the role of Mercédès.  

"In opera, you must use your face much more. You have to use your body language so much more because not only are you not singing in English, but also, we're not miked. So, when you hear us in the Phillips Center, we have no microphones attached to us. This is a very unique thing about opera,” she said.

The cast, which is under the direction of UF voice professor Anthony Offerle, is made up of over 150 undergraduate and graduate students from the UF Opera Theatre, UF School of Theatre + Dance, the Capella Nova Chorus of Gainesville and UF Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Tiffany Lu will lead the 70-piece orchestra. 

“All the students had to memorize and know this entire book,” Offerle said while holding his 391-page copy of Bizet's “Carmen” songbook.  

The students in the cast auditioned during the fall semester and have been rehearsing since then. Before taking part in the production, most students had not been exposed to opera singing before.  

“We teach them. We have a lot of people in this cast who've never sung opera before. And we teach them. We teach them how to breathe. We teach them how to use their voice, we teach them how to sing over an orchestra without a microphone. And it's magical,” Offerle said.   

In addition to being introduced to classical singing, most students had no prior knowledge of French.  

“All freshmen take English diction, Italian diction, German diction and French diction, in that order," said Nathaniel Pappachen, member of the “Carmen” ensemble and Le Dancaïre understudy.

"There are some upperclassmen and graduate students that have been doing diction for a while, and so this was less of a challenge for them. What we do is there's this thing called IPA, which stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. It's a universal sort of transcription for all phonetics, and as a voice major, we all learn this,” said Pappachen.

The production will also feature internationally renowned guest artists. Mezzo-soprano Kristin Chávez will be playing Carmen. She has starred with many opera companies in the past, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the Santa Fe Opera and the Sydney Opera House.  

“She's electric onstage. She is absolutely incredible," said Linafelter. "The kind of energy she brings to set is unparalleled by anyone else. Her talent is spectacular. I mean, the first time we ran through the big opening with her, she ran the whole thing, just improvising it onstage.” 

Another guest artist is Matthew Morgan, a professor in theater and dance,  as Don José. And visiting assistant professor at the School of Music, Thaddeus Bourne will interpret the Toreador.  

“I've always seen it work; I've always seen it inspire our students. But no more than this year," said Offerle. "As soon as someone of that caliber comes to a rehearsal, and we've moved them into what we've already been rehearsing, all of a sudden, everybody is just magically more energetic. They sing better, they rise to the level of their professionalism immediately.” 

Performing at the end of the spring semester is not the only thing that UF Opera Theatre students do. Part of their mission is to reach young students. In the fall, cast members of “Carmen” went to about a dozen schools in Gainesville and held small preview performances of the show in classrooms and cafeterias.  

“It's been amazing getting to see all the kids’ faces because, you know, a lot of them have never been exposed to opera. All of a sudden, you see their faces light up because they're like, ‘Oh, I'm not going to like opera, opera is for old people.’ Halfway through a scene, you look out into the sea of kids in this school cafeteria, and you just see their faces light up," said Linafelter.

"They're just so excited. And they, because of our movements on stage, they understand what's happening in the scene. I think that that's kind of what this is all about, isn't it? Just connecting with people in a special way is what art is all about, and opera is no exception," she said.

UF Opera Theatre invited the schools that it previously visited for a private free show Friday morning.  

“A lot of these students have never been to a theater,” Offerle said. “Or they have never seen an orchestra with over 75 players or this big stage. They have never seen anything like this.” 

The guest artists will not be performing [at the morning performance]. Instead, their understudies will be there alongside the rest of the cast. Graduate student April Basiletti will be playing Carmen for the school show and Mercédès for the actual show. 

“Playing Carmen is kind of like a dream for a lot of singers because it's such a popular opera," said Basiletti. "It is a great opportunity, even though I'm not doing the whole show for the schools. I've really enjoyed having the opportunity to get to play Carmen, but still not have the pressure of having to do the whole show.” 

UF added opera to its curriculum in 1980. At first, the students in the program would only produce and perform small individual scenes. Through the years, students started to do one-act performances and later full-length productions.

In 2007, Offerle directed and produced “La Traviata.” He said it was UF’s first big opera production presented at the Phillips Center. Even after 15 years, he said he remembers that it was a big date night for students.  

“They were all 20-something, right? One of the guys was saying, ‘I had no idea how cool this was going to be,'" Offerle said. "'I never knew opera was this amazing.’ They went to the opera thinking it was going to be boring, right? And the story and the beautiful music. I mean, they were hooked. And I said, ‘that's why we're here. We're here to get people excited about the arts. We're here to make the world a more beautiful place. We're here to use these stories to make people's lives better.’ And so just that inspired me. It still does." 

Now, Offerle has the walls of his office covered with over 15 framed opera posters that UF Opera Theatre has put together since then, including “Tosca,” “The Magic Flute,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “La Bohéme.” “Hansel and Gretel” was the last in-person production that he directed before the pandemic.  

In March 2020, they were supposed to perform “The Golem of Prague,” a new work composed by UF professor Paul Richards.

But the COVID-19 pandemic stopped in-person performances just as the cast was in the final stages of rehearsals. But that didn’t stop them. Instead, they collaborated with nine other colleges and produced the first opera film at UF. The movie was released a year later after post-production.

It won second place for large-scale music production in the 2021-2022 production competition in the National Opera Association. 

“That was really exciting. I mean, it's because we brought together nine parts of the university to do this. UF really loves collaboration,” Offerle said.  

Tickets to watch “Carmen” are $10 for students (UF and K-12) and children and $45 for adults. They may be purchased online at performingarts.ufl.edu. 

“‘Carmen’ is one of the most popular operas, if not the most popular opera in the world. If your local theater is doing it for only $40 a ticket and for students $10, why wouldn't you see it?” said Pappachen. 

Jimena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.