“Carmen” has been performed hundreds of times here at the Royal Opera, but your version is different. How?
First, you’ve got to understand that there’s no definitive version of “Carmen.” The printed score was done after Bizet’s death, and we know that there’s a handwritten score, which was then changed in rehearsal. Those rehearsals were a catastrophe: The chorus went on strike, the orchestra couldn’t play the music, Bizet had to change the ending. The management kept saying, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” When he died, there was no definitive version.
One of the differences in our version is that we stick with the idea that the piece was written with spoken dialogue between the musical elements, because it was an “opéra comique.” But we don’t do spoken dialogue between the characters; we have a narrator.
You seem very interested in opéra comique and operetta, traditions of music theater that many big opera houses shy away from. How does “Carmen” fit into those?
The piece is not a Spanish opera. It’s a French opera, from the first note. Actually it’s not even a French opera, it’s an operetta that turns into an opera in the fourth act.
This is the mistake that people make. They assume that it’s a doom-laden story of a Gypsy with black curly hair and gold earrings, and a story of love and sex and whatever. Well, it turns into that, but for the first two thirds of the evening, it’s sunlight, it’s joy, it’s naughtiness, it’s irony. I keep saying to the cast, “You’re in an operetta. You are not in ‘le grand opéra.’ ”
But the opera comes to us so steeped in all these Spanish clichés.
We play with the Spanish clichés. For example, I said to my designer, “We are not setting the production in any place. We don’t need to worry about what country are we in; we can do whatever we bloody well like.” And that opens you up to all sorts of things. But I said, “Let’s just put Escamillo in a fabulous toreador’s costume.” When he comes on, everyone’s waiting for that number — and we turn it into a huge number. I said, “Just make sure the toreador costume looks fabulous, and it solves the problem.”
As you say, it’s in the music. She dances, and we’ve put other dance elements in, in places where there’s not normally dancing.
She uses dance but not in the form of go-go dancing: It’s not pole dancing, and it’s not the local men’s night, with a stripper there. She uses dance in the absolute primal sense of a kind of Dionysian expression of joy and power, which is an entirely different thing.
Earlier this year, in a production of “Carmen” in Florence, there was a lot of controversy when the ending was changed so that she kills Don José, and not the other way around. What do you think about that?
I’m a little bit cynical because I think it was very connected to the whole #MeToo movement. I mean there have been thousands of productions in the last hundred years where people change the ending. There have been thousands where it says in the libretto that she dies, and a production makes him die. This is nothing new.
If people think that that’s contributing to a debate about #MeToo, then I roll my eyes in enormous cynicism, because the #MeToo moment is very important: It has to do with what is happening in the offices and streets and corridors of real life. But we are in the fantasy space of theater.
When you make decisions about what to do onstage, do you think about the statements these make, politically?
I’ve got to think about it, because I’m a man who lives in the 21st century. We’ve got to be honest here: The history of opera is a history of misogyny. With glaring exceptions — Monteverdi, Mozart, Janacek — most of the rest, particularly the 19th century, is deeply problematic.
You have a duty as a director, male or female, to investigate that and try and twist it or try and play with it or try and subvert it. That’s what makes opera so fantastic. You operate in opera on many different levels. You are having a conversation with the past, on a stage, to a contemporary audience. This is what makes it exciting.