STRONG WORDS, my thoughts on directing the opera Carmen

I was given a magnificent compliment today at the matinee performance of Carmen, which I directed for Opera AACC. It is my first time in the director's chair, so I have been extremely anxious as to how this opera is received. The compliment I received was about my program notes. The father-in-law of a dear friend said to me, "those are some strong words." I agreed, yes they are indeed strong words. Strong words are important and need to be said more often by women and by artists. So here are my strong words...

"If you were to ask me what is at the core of being an artist, I would respond with the word reflection. Some say that artists are the conscience of society, I prefer to think of us as the mirror.

On the very first day of my undergraduate education, in my first Women’s Studies class, my professor said the words that would forever affect the way I view my craft: “Art is mimetic of life.” The course was Women’s Roles in Literature Throughout History. We read books like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Awakening by Kate Chopin. My teacher would use the words “subject” and “other” and would guide us through conversations about power and ownership. We read the poetry of Emily Dickenson and Maya Angelou (God rest her soul), but it was the words of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye that would have the most profound impact on me.

Her main character, a young African American girl named Pecola Breedlove, prays for her eyes to turn blue, so that she can be beautiful…and so that she can be loved. She is epitome of “other” and her story is painful and tragic.

Carmen appealed to me in the same way. In her otherness, Carmen seemed to beckon me and fill my mind with questions. In most interpretations, she is seen as evil, manipulative and without morals. In the images I have seen from various productions, she is presented through a hyper-sexualized and patriarchal lens. I was not satisfied nor was I enticed by this view. In fact, I was infuriated. I began to wonder if there was more to her than this singular perspective.

My investigation took me first to the source material, the novella by Prosper Merimee. There I discovered the WORLD of Carmen. The characters that surrounded her, contextualized her for me. I began to see her actions and the subsequent fallout, as the consequences to her mechanisms of survival. I began to wonder: if one is created in a paradigm that is outside of the dominant system of morals and values (the Judeo-Christian ethic), does that make one immoral when that person acts in a way that is contrary to the system in power? But Merimee’s story, although titled Carmen, is more so the story of Don José, than it’s titular namesake. After all, no Carmen is an island.

In our production, we set forth the goal to create a more fleshed, multi-dimensional view of ALL of the inhabitants of this world. We explored archetype, hierarchy and questioned all of the traditional assumptions we make about this woman and those who surround her. I wanted to offer our performers the opportunity to re-interpret their roles, and to make decisions about their roles that at times, were an outright contradiction to their previous experiences. Together, we found new ways into this story. We bravely ventured into the territory of objectification, spectacle and the commodification of sexuality. We shined light into the dark corners and explored uncomfortably, yet courageously in the newness of this process.

As a performer who is steeped in classical tradition, I feel the responsibility to preserve and perpetuate my chosen craft. As an artist, a contemporary, a mirror and a reflection of our culture, I feel the need to ask myself: what are the values that we propagate, through the re-creation of traditional performance modes? Like Carmen, I am “other” in this production. I am a dancer directing an opera. I am a deviser of new work, staging a classical work. I am an improviser, exploring material that has long been codified for hundreds of years.

At its core, this piece is a reflection on the timelessness of its themes. There is great passion, possibly love, loss, confusion, consequences, pain and ultimately…tragedy. At the end of this process, I am left only with more questions and no answers. I am deeper into the mystery of Carmen, than I was a year ago at the birth of this production. Perhaps with more time and more reflection, she will reveal her secrets to me.

~Megan Morse Jans, director"

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