A full-scale production of "Carmen" comes to the Cohan Center

A countywide collaboration brings the classic opera to SLO

slinn@thetribunenews.comOctober 9, 2013 

When describing his approach to opera, Brian Asher Alhadeff brought up orange juice.

Served in a sterile cardboard box with a straw, he explained, orange juice is boring. Pour the same liquid into a crystal goblet and “it enhances the senses on all parts,” Alhadeff added, forcing the drinker to contemplate the fragrance, flavor and color of sun-kissed oranges.

Alhadeff, artistic and general director of Opera San Luis Obispo, said the same comparison can be made between minimalist stage productions with small casts, canned music and stripped-down sets and full-scale operas.

 “Every once in a while we have the Olympics of classical music. We put it on one stage together (and call it) opera,” Alhadeff said.

“Carmen,” playing Saturday and Sunday at the Cohan Center at Cal Poly, finds Opera San Luis Obispo teaming up with the Central Coast Children’s Choir, Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo, Cuesta College Concert Choir and San Luis Obispo Symphony. Designed to showcase the wealth of talent in San Luis Obispo County, it’s the company’s biggest collaborative production yet.

“What they’re all going to get out of this is a ‘Carmen’ that they’ll never be able to do in their whole career: the full orchestra, the full chorus, the traditional grand presence of the ballet … a huge stage, two-story sets,” Alhadeff said. “This is the real thing. This is the way (creator Georges) Bizet wanted it.”

An opera classic

“Carmen,” which premiered in Paris in 1875, is considered one of opera’s classics.

“ ‘Carmen’ is such a core of our western society musically,” chorus master Cassandra Tarantino said, noting that snippets of the opera appear in everything from cartoons to commercials to Disney’s “Up.” “It’s just part of our life because the music is so brilliantly written.”

Set in Seville, Spain, circa 1820, “Carmen” centers on the beautiful, fiery Gypsy girl Carmen (Karin Mushegain), who seduces noble soldier Don José (Christopher Campbell, replacing Ben Gulley) only to reject him for dashing bullfighter Escamillo (Isaiah Musik-Ayala). Don José, meanwhile, has promised his mother that he will marry Micaëla (Ciera Lamborn).

Alhadeff described “Carmen” as the first “verismo” opera — the first to depict everyday life as experienced by ordinary people.

“We’re not talking about anything supernatural. We’re not talking about kings and queens … generals and historical figures,” he explained. “We’re talking about bull fighters, prostitutes, police officers, soldiers. …”

“ ‘Carmen’ was groundbreaking on many levels and I want it to be groundbreaking for us here too,” Alhadeff explained.

The opera is performed in French with English supertitles.

Ballet paired with orchestra

Although “The Carmen Project,” as he and his fellow organizers have dubbed it, has been in the works for months, Alhadeff traced its inspiration to an earlier event — Civic Ballet’s 2011 production of “The Nutcracker.”

“When I came here in 2011, the first thing I wanted to do was drown myself in everything arts. So I went to every play, every musical, every dance,” he explained, including “The Nutcracker.”

Afterward, he went to meet the cast. As he slipped his arm around dancer Harmony True, Alhadeff recalled, “I whispered in her ear, ‘How awesome would it be if we could get an orchestra here with you next year?’ ”

Her reaction was enough to convince Alhadeff to “(make) it my mission to pair Opera San Luis Obispo with Civic Ballet” and Santa Barbara’s State Street Ballet, he said. The following year, the opera company’s orchestra accompanied both “Nutcracker” productions live.

 “Everything I’ve done involves taking one show and collaborating on the success of others. That’s what I want to do here,” said Alhadeff, who also worked with the Sierra Madre Playhouse to bring “The Yeomen of the Guard” to the Central Coast in 2011. “When we pool all our resources together, we become greater as an ensemble than separately.”

“Carmen,” which is conducted by Alhadeff and directed by Ross Halper, features set design by Brian Williams, costume design by Cynthia Cooley-Vest and lighting design by Brian McPherson.

Beth Klemm leads the children’s choirs, while choreographer Drew Silvaggio is working with dancers from The Academy of Dance, Civic Ballet and Ryan’s American Dance in San Luis Obispo.

Tarantino, meanwhile, is in charge of a 47-member adult chorus — a mix of Cuesta College students and experienced Opera San Luis Obispo singers.

For those students, standing onstage with veteran voices has been a “life learning experience,” Tarantino said.

“They will always remember their first opera,” said Tarantino, who conducts Cuesta’s North County Chorus.

“Carmen” offers several benefits for community organizations too, Alhadeff said.

In addition to adding prestigious performance dates to their schedules, the production provides plenty of opportunities for cross-marketing, he said, enabling each group to appeal to audiences they wouldn’t normally reach.

“It’s a great way to keep audience members educated on all the different arts organizations,” said Silvaggio, artistic director of Civic Ballet and resident choreographer, teacher and owner at Academy of Dance.

 “I love the fact that all these different organizations can get on the same stage together and create something that’s purely San Luis Obispo,” Silvaggio said. “It’s purely a community effort.”


7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$10 to $75
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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