Ernesto Ramirez (Don Jose) and Barbara King (Carmen) in Opera Kelowna's Carmen. Photo: Glenna Turnbull
Ernesto Ramirez (Don José) and Barbara King (Carmen) in Opera Kelowna's Carmen. Photo: Glenna Turnbull

Opera Kelowna is bringing the “unbridled heat and dangerous passions” of Bizet’s beloved opera to the stage this week with a new main-stage production of Carmen at the Kelowna Community Theatre from August 16-19.

Shunning the traditional red dress and 19th-century setting, this production will see Bizet’s fiery heroine clad in trousers, taking on the grit and grunge of a “fantastical” inner city, complete with leather, tattoos, neon signs and street art.

“We’re bringing in actual street artists to do some of our set painting, that’s influenced by Banksy, by the Berlin murals, by Shepard Fairey…it’s a very extraordinary, unique approach to the opera,” says Opera Kelowna’s Artistic Director and Founder Alexandra Babbel.

“We’re trying to look at Carmen with a modern eye,” continues Director Amiel Gladstone, whose recent directorial projects include Tosca for Pacific Opera Victoria, Lucia di Lammermoor for Vancouver Opera and the Chamber Werx music series for Banff Centre.

Ernesto Ramirez (Don Jose) and Barbara King (Carmen) in Opera Kelowna's Carmen. Photo: Glenna Turnbull
Barbara King (Carmen) in Opera Kelowna’s Carmen. Photo: Glenna Turnbull

Carmen, as Gladstone envisions her, “is a step ahead of everybody—she’s smarter than everybody, she’s funnier than everybody,” both empowered in her own sexuality but also simultaneously engaged in a fight for freedom to express herself.

With this Carmen, his Opera Kelowna directorial debut, Gladstone hopes to shine a light on the way society judges bold assertions of female sensuality—a phenomenon as painfully relevant today as it was in Bizet’s time. For him, it’s about following Carmen’s journey as she navigates these obstacles, showing that “the issue is not her—the issue is the men around her and the misogyny that’s keeping her back from being the person she should be.”

The production boasts a talented international cast, consisting of singers from Canada, the U.S., and even Ukraine. “Several people are in Canada for the very first time,” reveals Babbel. The opera’s titular role will be shared between mezzo-sopranos Barbara King and Suzanne Lommler, while tenors Steeve Michaud and Ernesto Ramirez will alternate in the role of Don José.

Scottish conductor Bernard McDonald returns to Opera Kelowna to lead the orchestra, and Victoria native, Kinza Tyrell, is Répétiteur and Chorus Master. Set Designer Drew Facey will bring the “highly stylized,” urban-steampunk setting to life on stage at the Kelowna Community Theatre.

Carmen is part of the fifth season of performances at Opera Kelowna, which also includes an ‘Opera in the Park’ series, bringing singers from the company’s intensive summer training program to perform on stages in towns throughout the Okanagan. Opera Kelowna is one of three recognized professional opera companies in the province of British Columbia. And since the art form is still a relatively new introduction to Kelowna’s cultural scene, it makes for a “great opportunity to build something with no legacy to step into,” reflects Babbel.

Alexandra Babbel and Amiel Gladstone

The young company also draws equally youthful audiences—most of whom, she explains, are new to opera. “Three years ago, when we brought Magic Flute to the stage, 50% of our audience had never been to [an] opera before,” Babbel reveals. Similarly, at the company’s production of La Bohème last year, nearly half of the audience was under the age of 45.

Buoyed by their audience’s evident growing interest in works for the lyric stage, Opera Kelowna hopes to cultivate “a new revolutionary renaissance of opera lovers,” says Babbel.

“From Kelowna’s standpoint, opera is definitely not dying—in fact, it’s just shown up here!” adds Gladstone. “So from this small-city perspective, it feels like it’s just beginning.”

While Opera Kelwona may be the newest opera company in the region, it is already making its mark in more ways than one. Proceeds from Sunday’s special matinee performance of Carmen will go to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.

“We want not only to see our opera succeed but we want to see others within our care succeed as well,” says Babbel, whose daughter was diagnosed with the disease in 2015.

She hopes that this particular performance will “capture the hearts and minds of those who still make the assumption that opera is just for the rich and famous.”

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