Georges Bizet’s Carmen needs no introduction. It’s familiar to practically anyone who’s ventured into a theatre to see tenors and sopranos take to the stage. The opéra comique, a genre of French performance containing both spoken dialogue and arias, boasts one of the most famous tragic narratives in history. Set in Spain, it tells the story of Don José, a naïve soldier who’s seduced by the fiery gypsy Carmen before he loses her to a glamorous toreador, also known as a bullfighter on horseback, then kills her in jealous rage. It doesn’t matter if you watched this in 1875 or now, it’s relevant, it’s passionate, and it’s hugely entertaining.
It’s a definite must-see as local performing arts company Musica Viva stages this classic tale. The show features some of Hong Kong’s best vocalists with mezzo-soprano Carol Lin playing the titular character. The production is in the steady hands of professor Lo Kingman, formerly of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts and now founder and director of Musica Viva. We speak to the professor, as well as Lin and baritone Sammy Chien, who plays hotshot toreador Escamillo, about the show, the passion and what they’d do if they met the characters face-to-face...
So, professor, this is an opera written in French, set in Spain and now produced for a Hong Kong audience. Do you fear anything may get lost in translation?
Lo: In the repertoire, Carmen is perhaps the most popular and the most frequently performed opera. So Hongkongers will find it very familiar. Furthermore, the majority of operas are in French, Spanish and Italian anyway, but the expressive power is in the music. Few people wouldn’t recognise Carmen and its music, especially Habanera and the Toreador Song. The beauty of Carmen is that the music is sublime from start to finish. It contains the emotions of the characters, so it’s easy to understand.
It’s indeed a hugely popular opera. Is this a production that Hong Kong needs to see?
Lo: I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say we have a production that Hong Kong specifically needs to see but I think if you enjoy classical music, even a little, you owe it to yourself to see this production.
Carol Lin and Sammy Chien, hello! So, tell us about your characters...
Chien: Escamillo is a very simple person. He’s a star. Can I also say he’s got narcissistic personality disorder? [Laughs.] Even when he loses, he has to pick himself up and act like nothing happened and act in control. He’ll shout it from the mountaintop when he has a bullfight, so he’s really braggadocious.
Lin: I think it’s quite amusing. From the time I was a kid, even though I hadn’t taken up singing seriously yet, I felt incredibly drawn to the character of Carmen. A lot of people see Carmen as being carefree and oblivious but I think that she knows a lot, yet does what she wants anyway. She prizes her freedom.
If the both of you got the chance to meet your characters, what would you say to them?
Lin: In my mind, I think if I got a chance to meet Carmen face-to-face, we could just understand each other in the silence. There wouldn’t be much to say. We’d understand each other through and through.
Chien: I don’t think I would be able to stand a conversation with Escamillo because he and I are on totally different wavelengths. He’ll try to talk about himself and when I don’t respond, he’ll just up and leave. He’d be like any other star, as we understand it, so in terms of what he wants, namely glory, glitz and glamour, we just don’t have anything in common!
Lastly, professor, do you have any words for the audience when they arrive for the performance?
Lo: Usually I like to say some words and encourage people to come to our productions but I don’t think I have to this time because it seems like most of the shows are almost sold out! So I would say you have to grab tickets while they’re available. Oh, and enjoy the show!