SFOpera - Primal Instinct

Primal Instinct

Called by some the “Quentin Tarantino of opera,” Catalan director Calixto Bieito first received international notoriety for his 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Berlin’s Komische Oper. Depicting graphic scenes of rape, fellatio, and torture, the sold-out production established Bieito as one of Europe’s foremost opera directors, loved and hated for his shockingly contemporary visions of cruelty and sexuality.

With this current production of Carmen, Bieito is making his American operatic and San Francisco Opera debuts. Transporting the ramparts of 19th-century Seville to post-Franco Spain (and, specifically, the autonomous Spanish city of Ceuta in North Africa), Bieito has created a provocative—and compelling—staging that will undoubtedly challenge opera lovers. 

According to revival director Joan Anton Rechi, the production’s few scenes of nudity, violence, and sensuality aren’t gratuitous but serve a well-defined dramatic purpose. He cites, for instance, the opening scene of Act III featuring a naked toreador as an allusion to the ritualistic “moon baptism” that superstitious bullfighters take part in the night before a bullfight.   

“Calixto wanted a high level of realism to show a wild and cruel universe full of passions and primal virility,” says Rechi. “It was important not to fall into the folkloristic clichés of flamenco.” Rather, he says, this production is more faithful to the gritty and raw naturalism of the original Mérimée novel that Bizet and his co-librettists adapted.

In his interview with writer Judith Malafronte, Bieito delved deeper into aspects of character, Carmen’s universal themes, and the creative process.

Do you see Carmen as a feminist, a femme fatale, a victim, or maybe all three? Is she perhaps something else entirely?

She is none of these three things. Carmen doesn’t represent anything or anybody. She is a person of flesh and bone. The challenge with Carmen is that she doesn’t fall into any of those categories. She is simply human. She’s a young woman in the context of a difficult life where she’s had to survive. Like Lorca says, I love characters whose blood you can see… authentic characters.

Who is Carmen today?

She’s a person who loves life, and lives it without limits. She enjoys exploring the limits of other people and her own limits. But she does this naturally, without having to construct an artifice or a personality. She has no perspective on herself. She’s a human being in all its simplicity and complexity. She’s intuitive, earthy, passionate, melancholy, sensitive….A young person with desires to drink up life.

Some people think that the fatalistic Carmen is looking all along for the man who will kill her. Do you think so?

No, Carmen is not looking for a man who will kill her. Not at all. She likes Don José. I think Carmen is a woman who has a strong connection with life and death. She thinks about her death, but she doesn’t want to die. Of course, she is living in a dangerous and violent society and she knows Don José is a violent person. But I insist she doesn’t want to die.

To what extent is the opera about control?

This opera, from my point of view, deals with limits, the emotional and physical boundaries between people, and about freedom, love, violence, sorrow, desperation, solitude.

How do you answer those who complain that your production is not “Spanish” enough? How important is the Spanish setting or the gypsy milieu?

Carmen is not a Spanish opera. In fact, today Carmen belongs to humanity like the works of Shakespeare or Cervantes. My Carmen is not picturesque, nor folkloric, nor a collection of engravings of a stereotypical old Spain. It’s a Carmen that walks along the border.

Are you making any changes for this revival?

Each new production of this Carmen is filled with the singers’ authenticity. Each one of my Carmens is different and similar at the same time. However, the Carmen in San Francisco will be genuinely new.

What qualities do you most admire in the singers you work with?

 Freedom, generosity, kindness, and most of all dramatic and vocal talent.

Unraveling the Enigma of Carmen
The Art of the Bullfight