How Baltimore youth are bringing 'Carmen’ into the 21st century

In the fourth grade, Kaylin Luces missed a class field trip to see “Carmen” because she lost her permission slip. Now, she will be the lead alongside three other girls in a youth-based musical adaptation of the classic opera.

“I’ve always wanted to be a part of Carmen,” said Luces, a 20 year-old, film major at Bowie State University. “We got introduced to the whole soundtrack and I was like, ‘This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard in my life’ and then I couldn’t go because I couldn’t find my permission slip.”


Director, writer and choreographer CJay Phillips saw many renditions of the 19th century opera originally written by French composer Georges Bizet, but none from the perspective of a woman. She had just finished performing in “Legally Blonde” on Broadway when she and her husband decided to settle in Baltimore.

“I kept thinking, the choices that Carmen is making and the person that she's portrayed to be, feels like a caricature to me, and not quite a real woman,” she said. “This is such a dominant women’s story, which is so rare, that I think it could use the lens of a woman’s point of view.”


The French opera, based on a novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée, was received poorly by its first audience. The story, set in southern Spain, follows Don José, a soldier who leaves his childhood sweetheart in pursuit of Carmen only to find that she is with a bullfighter named Escamillo. In a jealous rage, he kills her.

Phillips decided to make a contemporary adaptation that takes place in a high school and follows Carmen, played by three actresses who fall for Don Jose, played by three different actors. The fourth Carmen is introduced in a surprising turn in the musical’s final act, according to a news release. The adaptation, called “Voices of Carmen,” pays tribute to the original work with traditional renditions of Bizet’s compositions along with new songs with a modern twist.

An Albany, New York native, Phillips said she moved to Mount Vernon after the stock market crashed in 2008 and has stayed here largely because of Baltimore’s art scene.

“We’ve moved seven of our friends from all over the country to Baltimore because of its amazing art scene,” she said. “There’s just an incredible amount of energy and talent.”

She started her company, Dance & Bmore, in 2010 with the goal of strengthening human and family connections through the arts.

She grew frustrated when she heard about the troubling rates of dating violence among young people. Statistics show that up to one in three adolescents are victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse from their partner.

“I was very tired of all the sort of celebrities and town hall meetings after things happen,” she said. “Is a way for us to get out in front of this and actually start to talk about and deal with our emotional health and how young people are dealing with their feelings before it escalates to something that's going to change their life forever?”

Through Dance & Bmore, Phillips initially created a small youth-based Baltimore group that formed the Carmen Youth Council.


“I looked up the word council and it fit the role I needed them to play.” she said.

What started as a small group of like-minded Baltimore youth and a few adults, blossomed into a musical production.

For Severna Park High School senior, Faith Bender, who also plays Carmen, her introduction to the musical was through the youth council. According to Bender, the council advises Philips on character decisions and ideas for the musical.

“We have a youth board that advises her on decisions and certain ideas that she might have [and] we give her our ideas,” Bender said. “What’s really unique about this project is not only is it conceived by women and men, but it’s also conceived by teenagers as well.”

For members of the cast it gave them a unique opportunity to see themselves in starring roles and also sparked discussions about conflict management.

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“We were able to put in our input about what we see in our schools and what we see in our neighborhoods,” Bender said. “It was really interesting to get other people’s feedback and see how we can add that into the musical.”


If you go

Showtimes: The Waxter Senior Center, 1000 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, July 24, 1:00 p.m.

Penn North Enoch Pratt Library, 1531 W. North Ave., Baltimore, July 25, 2:30 p.m.

The Baltimore School for the Arts, 712 Cathedral St., Baltimore,, July 30 followed by three performances July 31-August 2

Live streaming performance from the Kennedy Center Millennial Stage, 2700 F Street Nw Washington, DC, August 3, 6:00 p.m.

Cost: Tickets range from $10-$50 dollars and are available at

For more information, email or call 410-871-8322.