Fire, Fate and Kirstin Chávez

One of the most interesting productions of the Georges Bizet opera Carmen that I ever saw starred the mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez in the title role, a performance that Opera News in New York called “the Carmen of a lifetime”. She has been fascinated by the character of Carmen herself since the earliest days of her career, coming to very personal conclusions about what she thinks the character stands for both in the opera by Bizet and in the original classic French novella by Prosper Mérimée. She has now created a one woman show about Carmen and is bringing this show, Carmen: Fire and Fate, to the UK where it will tour before moving on to other centres on the continent and in the USA. Speaking with Chavez recently, I asked her if this evening of music and socio-political commentary about sexual and other kinds of politics had been mainly her own creation. She said that she had been infected by the creative germ of the idea for some time; but turning her ideas into a show was not a solo effort.

“I certainly wasn’t alone in conceiving it. First I talked about it with my producer, Kate Herbert, and we discussed it long and hard and really, together we figured out how it could work. I also realized that there was one director I had worked with who came to mind for collaborating oncreating the staging with me. So I also spoke with Johnathon Pape right away and presented the idea to him. I felt that if he couldn’t envision how it would work, then I would let it go; but if he could figure out how to make it come alive, I would go for it. So called Johnathon while I was on vacation in Colorado and told him about this crazy idea. Almost instantly he was coming up non-stop and enthusiastically with ideas, without even taking any breath, ideas just kept pouring out of him. So I just thought: Well, if he can be this excited and stimulated by the mere mention of the idea, let’s do it!”

Kirstin went on to explain how the concept was then developed.  “Johnathon came up with a basic script for me and an envisioning for how we could go from one part of the opera to the other. During the next month we refined the script, figured out how to make it more in keeping with the character of Carmen as I saw her. I wanted something that could fall easily from my mouth and lead easily to the music. I wanted the actual script and talking to be concise, to emphasize the music and character. More importantly, I wanted to create something that means really sharing the experience that I believe Carmen herself was having in her life as we see the story develop, the struggles and feelings and anger and also, above all, her joy, her energy and joie de vivre, her passionate love of life itself and of her individual liberty. The text we finally wrote reflects what I believe to be truly in keeping with the Bizet opera. We have also now translated our text into Spanish and two of the performances we are giving in London in this first run will have the text in Spanish, not English. All the songs will still be in French, of course. And we are also in the process of building a French text version of the evening.” Kirstin laughed. “Paris and Montreal, here I come!”

Kirstin has already given performances of her one-woman take on Carmen and a preview performance she did in Utah not long ago was filmed. She is in the process of creating from that a one-minute trailer for You Tube.

Kirstin told me that when she spoke to her father about her ambitions for the show he was, at first, concerned that his was merely an egotistic exercise. She countered that this was not her thinking at all.  “The whole thing is driven by my absolute passion for the character of Carmen herself and grows from my anger at how many times I feel she has been mis-represented, mis-portrayed and simply been played two dimensionally as some kind of erotic slut. In the score and the text I feel there’s a huge amount more and that it is all much more subtle and complex. As much as any woman in the greatest of nineteenth century literature, Carmen is a woman trapped by the expectations of her times and has a freedom of vision and spirit that is downright heroic given her context. She is one of the first ‘modern’ women in literature. I’ve had a lot of frustration through the years when directors asked me to do things as Carmen that make no sense to me at all. She wouldn’t do things for no reason, and she is not simply self-destructive.”

Kirstin continue thoughtfully, “A lot of my motivation for creating this evening is the hope that through this show there can be a greater awareness of the three-dimensional and human Carmen, a woman driven not only by love and passion. I feel that Carmen has a great struggle with letting go of her relationship with José. This is particularly apparent in the fourth act of the opera; she struggles with her situation and doesn’t make up her mind lightly. I want to show how deep her character is and how she is motivated by many things. She is a complex and actually very moral woman, a woman of real and complete integrity. She holds herself to a higher standard. Here is a person who says ‘I will not go with you, if you have to kill me to make things right, then that is what you have to do; but I live by my own principles and I will not live the life of a lie’. I think we would have a healthier planet if people appreciated life as deliciously as Carmen does!”

Kirstin is firm in her conviction that people who believe Carmen is a slut are missing the whole point of the tale and of the opera. The really weak character is Don José.  “I have done about forty different productions of Carmen by now. It has been a focus of my career and the part I have done the most by far. So that opera and this show are very personal for me. I feel my Spanish roots strongly when I play her. Playing Carmen introduced me to my Spanish roots and to things I did not know I had in me. I have also spent a lot of time in France and adore the Spanish language, so marrying these two things somehow gives me something that makes me feel you could not describe me any better. This is the ultimate role that suits me remarkably well and I am so grateful for this.”

The show itself is directed by Johnathon Pape whom Kirstin met when he directed her in performing Sister Helen Prejean in the opera Dead Man Walking by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terence McNally. Her friend, producer Kate Herbert, was a sounding board. James Longford, with whom Kirstin worked at the Royal Opera House, is playing the piano for her. There will be seven UK performances with piano on this tour and then the first orchestral version of the show is scheduled for New Mexico in December 2017 between other engagements, with concerts to follow all over France and the USA. “It’ll be like a reunion of old friends whenever I do this show,” Kirstin added. “And, of course, there’s one more person who’s critical to the presentation: the choreographer Glenda Sol Koeraus, known as La Argentinita, the Little Argentinian.” Kirstin is now also teaching at the University of Utah as the Artist in Residence on the voice faculty. “I am carrying a full load of students when I’m not performing and I have to admit that it’s challenging when I have to be away. But I love my students and it’s a great blessing to me every time I get to return to my work with them.”

Just as it is one of her blessings in life whenever she gets to return to the character of Carmen.

The upcoming UK performances of Carmen: Fire and Fate are as follows:

Thursday, 8 June 2017: All Saints Church, Eaton Road, Hove BN3 3QE at 1:00 PM Friday, 9 June: Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL at 7.45 PM 12, 13,15, 16, 17 June: Cervantes Theatre, Arch 26, Old Union Street Arches, 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR at 7.30 PM