Multi-Media Carmen Comes to Wolf Trap

"Carmen" costume sketch by Roth Varland.
"Carmen" costume sketch by Roth Varland.

When audience members arrive at the Wolf Trap Filene Center for the July 25 Wolf Trap Opera Company’s production of Bizet’s quintessential “Carmen,” they’ll be settling in for something special that’s at the core of opera, and at the core of the WTOC, an experience that’s both expansive and essential. This production, sung in French with English supertitles, features custom video projection design, providing attendees a multi-media opera experience.

Kim Pensinger Witman, the senior director of the WTOC, says that “’Carmen’ is the kind of opera where you draw a lot of people who normally might not go to the opera, or it’s on a list of something they might want to do, or it’s a reason for coming out here.” In short, like a few other standards of the opera repertoire (think “La Boheme” or “Madame Butterfly”), it’s an opera for people who may not even like opera, but want to see ‘Carmen.’ “Somewhere in people’s lives they’ve heard strands of music or arias from the opera, it’s comfortable and familiar in a way.”

“But it wasn’t always like that,” she added. “When it debuted, it created a bit of a firestorm, because it was very non-traditional. Plus there was controversy about the plot because it involved a heroine who was a gypsy as opposed to an aristocrat or royalty. In addition, the opera was an example of the new form “opera comique,” which used spoken dialogue along with the music, which wasn’t like classical opera.”

Now, it’s one of those operas that expands the audience because of its familiarity. But that’s not all that’s expanding the audience at Wolf Trap, where opera has been performed since 1971. The WTOC is one of the most highly regarded residency programs in the world.

It’s tiered into two groups--the Filene Young Artists and the Studio Artists. The Filene Young Artist singers (some 15-20) are drawn from candidates who already have completed advanced degrees and performed in apprenticeships. The Studio Artists (some 12-16) are drawn from candidates who have undergraduate degrees, but are still undecided on a career path for opera.

“One of the things that’s unique about the program is that we basically select and choose the operas we perform based on the roster of singers that we have, their particular talents and voices,” Witman says. “I don’t think anybody else does that.”

“Carmen” is not the beginning and end of what the Wolf Trap Opera Company has to offer during the summer’s season. There has been a consistently adventuresome aspect to the WTOC offerings, enriched by guest artists, top-notch conductors and designers. They also offer special programs, recitals and pre-performance talks. It’s a full-service season presented by a full-service company.

The company’s first offering of the season was a rarely performed production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” conducted by Antony Walker. The popular “Aria Jukebox,” which features Filene Young Artists singing arias selected by the audience, performed its annual show earlier this month. This year’s concert featured Artist in Residence Eric Owens and Director Witman at the piano.

“I started out as a pianist,” Witman said. “When I came here, I continued to play but took on other tasks, and now I’m senior director. Basically, I do the hiring. I’m involved in much of the production work. I coordinate all things classical music at Wolf Trap, which includes working with the National Symphony Orchestra partnership, which has their own Wolf Trap program and season.”

“We’re all trying to widen our audiences, all the venues big and small, and find ways to get the audience to come but to be a part of something—the talks, the recitals and of course the setting all lead up to the idea of opera at Wolf Trap being an experience. It’s a unique place, a unique company.”

For “Carmen,” Grant Gershon will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani stars as Carmen, with tenor Kevin Ray as Don Juan. Directing is Tara Faircloth.

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Fri, 21 Nov 2014 15:24:19 -0500

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