Washington National Opera’s ‘Carmen’ marks grand return to Kennedy Center Opera House

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews WNO's 'Carmen' at Kennedy Center (Part 1)

The Washington National Opera is making its return to the Kennedy Center Opera House.

It’s doing so in grand style by staging the iconic tragedy “Carmen” from May 14 to 28.

“This is our return to grand opera in the Opera House,” Artistic Director Francesca Zambello told WTOP. “‘Carmen’ is one of the most popular operas ever composed. … Its story still speaks to us today over and over, as does the incredible melody and tunes, which are unforgettable … although at its opening it was considered to be a disaster.”

Adapting from Prosper Mérimée’s novella, French composer Georges Bizet died after only a few dozen performances of his 1875 masterwork, unaware of its huge future success.

“It’s a story of a woman who lives outside of society with her own band of smugglers … one of the first feminists in opera who says it’s more important to live free than die,” Zambello said. “It’s also about how Don José, a young soldier, becomes smitten with her … and becomes so possessed with her that he loses all sense of reason and kills her.”

Bringing these timeless roles to life are some of opera’s brightest stars.

“We have a cast of stars,” Zambello said. “Carmen is sung by Isabelle Leonard, who was seen in our production of ‘Cinderella,’ ‘The Barber of Seville.’ … She packs an incredible punch vocally and dramatically. … Don José [is] sung by Michael Fabiano [in] his debut at the Kennedy Center, then the Toreador [is] Ryan Speedo Green … also debuting.”

They’ll sing iconic music conducted by Evan Rogister.

“‘Carmen’ has several very well-known arias,” Zambello said. “One is the “Seguidilla,” which is kind of a dance that she performs, then the “Habanera,” another kind of dance. … The most famous piece is the Toreador’s aria where he’s selling tickets to his bullfight. … It’s a tune everybody knows, used in tons of movies, even cartoons back to Bugs Bunny.”

The music is paired with vibrant visual elements.

“Really period, beautiful costumes, colorful, rich, earth tones,” Zambello said. “Aside from a cast of literally hundreds, there is also a horse, … a troupe of dancers … a chorus of 60 people, a children’s chorus of 24 kids. It starts in a square in Seville then transforms into a tavern … then into a mountain pass, then the final scene in front of the bull ring.”

The production is performed in its original French with projected English titles.

“The opera is sung in French and above the stage we project something called surtitles, which are the opposite of subtitles,” Zambello said. “It’s a simultaneous English translation, of course, so it’s very easy to follow in terms of the text, but obviously we hope the music and the action are sweeping you away and communicating the story as well.”

In the end, it reignites the Washington National Opera as a world-class organization.

“I’m proud to have served as the Artistic Director for a decade,” Zambello said. “I have worked around the world in many opera houses. … We have a commitment to creating the next generation of American artists, hiring the best and most important American singers who are gracing the world stages, as well as combining casts with international stars.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews WNO's 'Carmen' at Kennedy Center (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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