By John Patrick Ford



Photo:  John Russell

Bizet’s “Carmen” is one of the five most popular, and performed, operas in the standard repertory. The lively Spanish-style musical score and ensemble scenes of dancing gypsies and marching military are essential audience favorites.

Many of the arias and orchestral  themes are so familiar that even non-opera fans recognize them.

The Detour Series production performed in March by San Diego Opera is Peter Brook’s conceptual version of Carmen that will be a revelation to traditional opera goers. The score has been whittled down to 90 minutes of the original Bizet music with a twist to the storyline. Brook returns to the original gritty plot in Prosper Merimees’s novella of 1845.

A reviewer in The New York Times wrote that Brook swept away the cobwebs of the original libretto to stage a bare-bones theatre piece stripped of all the grand opera features that defined the work since its premiere in 1875.

Carmen is cast as a gypsy girl with easy virtue who has had many lovers and even a husband when she seduces Don José. The unlucky soldier is not the romantic mother’s boy pining for his hometown sweetheart. He is a rather scruffy corporal who does not have far to fall when he becomes ensnared with Carmen’s gang of smugglers. He even evolves into a serial killer, first Carmen’s husband, then his lieutenant who catches him at the gypsy tavern with Carmen and finally Carmen herself.

Other surprises from the original opera are the fate of the toreador, Escamillo, who dies in the bullring, and Don José’s sweetheart Micaela is a wild-cat rival for her soldier’s attention. All of these differences will no doubt shock the traditional opera audience but do relate to the tragedy of Carmen as it was originally conceived by the book’s author.

The Bizet version of the opera that has its moments of sexual display acceptable on today’s stage created a sensation at its premiere in Paris. Performed at the Opera Comique, considered a theater for family entertainment, it shocked the first audiences. Gypsy girls smoking on the stage and the love tryst between Carmen and Don José was not suitable for family viewing at the time. If the original story, as conceived by Peter Brook, had been used by Bizet, it never could have cleared the censors or at least created an audience rebellion.

The production of “The Tragédy of Carmen” was originally produced for Naples Opera in 1983. The stark set in keeping with the grim tale consisted of a sand floor, a few carpets and bundles of contraband and not much else.

This San Diego production was created especially for the Balboa Theatre. The reduced orchestra size suits this production in a chamber-opera setting. As in the original Bizet production, there is spoken dialogue rather than sung recitative.

All of the principals are making SDO debuts. Carmen is American mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell who performed with several West Coast opera companies and orchestras and was a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions. Canadian tenor Adrian Kramer, as Don José, appeared at Santa Fe Opera and numerous regional opera companies here and in Canada. American bass-baritone Ryan Kuster, as Escamillo, performed with San Francisco and Dallas Opera and several regional companies.

Conductor Chris Rountree in his SDO debut appeared with Los Angeles and Atlanta Opera and the Chicago Symphony. Alexander  Gedeon is the stage director, also making a SDO debut, has been active in New York theatre productions.

“The Tragédy of Carmen” is performed in French with English translation projected over the stage. Performances at the Balboa Theatre are at 7:00 p.m. on Friday March 10 and Saturday March 11 and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday March 12. For ticket information, call (619) 533 7000 or visit

There will be a radio broadcast of a live performance on KPBS at 8:00 p.m. on March 18.


Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University