'Carmen' adaptation a shorter, accessible take on classic opera


When it comes to the performing arts, as with many things in life, sometimes less is more.

Olney Theatre Center is embracing that philosophy with its production of La Tragedie de Carmen, Peter Brook's 1981 minimalist adaptation of Georges Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen.

Opera, in general, can have a tendency to scare off the uninitiated - with potential audiences being intimidated by seemingly grandiose music, drawn-out plots and foreign lyrics - and Carmen is the "grandest of all 19th-century grand opera," said Jim Petosa, Olney's artistic director. But this version strips the opera down to its essential elements - the central story and well-known songs - to make the genre more accessible to those with shorter attention spans.

The original Carmen consists of four acts, requires an orchestra of nearly 60 players, and can last up to four hours. The condensed adaptation reduces the production to one 90-minute act with a cast of four singers and two actors, and an orchestra of 15 instruments.

The production "gets rid of all the ornamental elements to get to the root of what Carmen is," said Petosa, who leads Boston University's School of Theatre Arts. "It's filled with all the music people know but don't realize is from Carmen ... and really gets to the human elements of the tragedy."

The "mini-Carmen" tells the story of the ill-fated romance between a Gypsy temptress who tries to outwit her destiny and a jaded army officer at the height of the Spanish Civil War (the modern iteration sets the story in a more contemporary time period). It's sung in French, with supertitles scrolling across three screens behind the actors.

Stephanie Chigas has played the lead role four times, and it took her more than six months to learn the French dialogue and articulations. A graduate of the Opera Institute at Boston University, she feels opera is a "richer" form of theater.

"Putting poetry to music and adding drama to it makes it come to life," she said.

Preparing for the production required an exchange of expertise between the singers, who have less acting training, and the actors, who struggled with delivering monologues in a foreign language, Chigas said.

"The rehearsal cultures are very different, and there was a lot of vocabulary to learn," Petosa said. "But it elevated the dramatic worth of the piece to get a more seamless effect of musical excellence as well as theatrical excellence."

Members of Boston University's Chamber Orchestra accompany the cast. Although fewer musicians take part in the production, said conductor William Lumpkin, the result can be "just as loud as a full orchestra."

"It's a much more visceral involvement with the singers," Lumpkin said.

Lumpkin hopes the production will put to rest the dated impressions of the genre. After all, he said, "it's shorter than a lot of movies."

"La Tragedie de Carmen" plays at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, through July 17. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A sign-interpreted performance will be July 14 at 8 p.m., and post-show discussions will be Saturday at 2 p.m. and July 6 at 8 p.m. Call 301-924-3400, or visit www. olneytheatre.org.

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