Austin Opera Takes 'Carmen' To The '70s

Nov 15, 2017

Credit Michal Daniel

"It might be a signature role because I've done it a lot of times, but it's always new, always fresh," says baritone Norman Garret about the role of Escamillo in Bizet's Carmen. The character's a bit larger than life, a flamboyent bullfighter who catches the eye of the title character; Garrett has played the role several times, but always brings a little something different to his portrayal.  And he definitely feels a kinship with Escamillo.

"He's flashy -- that's me. I mean, look -- I'm dressed all flashy," Garrett says (and he is indeed much more snazzily attired than the typical radio guest). "I like attention, I like to look nice, I like to command a room, so it's actually pretty typecast."

"And I've known Norman since college, so I can attest to that," agrees soprano Heather Phillips, who's performing Micaela in Carmen. She also feels a kinship with her character. "I think of my younger self," she says. "[Micaela is] very much looking for the kind of rulebook way of life, and that's how I was growing up. I'm from the Midwest. She comes from a smaller town, she ventures out into Seville... and has a lot of experiences that are kind of eye-opening for her. I've definitely experienced that in my own life."

Garrett and Phillips have both performed in Carmen before, but neither has been in a version quite like this one. Set in mid-1970s Spain, after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, this version is being billed as a "Boogie Nights Carmen." 

"So it's a period in Spain which was a huge upheaval." says Phillips. "So there's a lot of this question of freedom and liberty, and that's what Carmen is about in general. It's a lot about personal relationships and passion and death all these big things that opera deals with, but I think the real theme of Carmen -- no matter where you set it -- is this idea of freedom."

Phillips and Garrett are both making their Austin Opera debut, and for Lubbock native Garrett that's particularly special. "The first opera I ever saw... was at Austin Lyrica Opera, when I was in college. I drove down here and saw Tosca and it just kind of blew me away. It was like, 'Oh, this is what opera is like!'."

Carmen is onstage at the Long Center November 16 and 19.