Love, Obsession and Revenge: The Jacksonville Symphony Presents Carmen

Courtney Lewis, Conducting Electricity

Photo from the 2022 production of La Boheme, courtesy of the Jacksonville Symphony.

Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony   

  On April 12 and 14, the Jacksonville Symphony will stage our biggest production of the season, our “symphonically-staged” opera, which this year is Georges Bizet’s beloved and ever-relevant Carmen. For those of you who haven’t attended one of these operas before, Jacoby Symphony Hall is transformed into an opera house with a stage built behind the orchestra and several 30-feet screens onto which we project “sets.” It’s a thrilling experience to see, even before the music begins. With the orchestra also on stage, not in a pit, they are a visible part of the dramatic action, along with our world-class cast of singers. 

 Carmen is an opera about love, obsession, inescapable charisma, betrayal and revenge. Bizet’s music is glorious, capturing the languid heat of the Spanish sun. It centers on its namesake, a beautiful gypsy woman whom no man can resist. Carmen’s music oozes sensuality, and the whole opera burns with a kind of passionate heat. Throughout history, societies have had a fear of independent female sexuality, by which I mean female sexuality that is not controlled by men, and their operas often reflect this. Think of Gilda in Rigoletto, who sacrifices herself to save a faithless duke, Aida who dies after an inappropriate match, Madam Butterfly who kills herself after being abandoned or Lulu who must die to atone for her nymphomania. As far as our story goes, the seemingly moral Don Jose, obsessed with Carmen, descends far from his values into a man consumed with jealousy and an inability to accept Carmen’s fierce strength and independence. Even though she doesn’t cause this intentionally (she is simply being her authentic self), she must die because she has upset the status quo. Don Jose kills her, and for this, he must die.  

 Don Jose’s death is the point at which most productions of Carmen end. Our director, Gregory Keller, worked at the Metropolitan Opera for almost 30 years. In our setting, he flips the usual timeline on its head. We start at six in the morning, the time at which Don Jose is to be executed for the murder of Carmen, as well as numerous other offenses including smuggling, armed robbery, extorsion and a handful of previously unsolved homicides. How could this once respectful and promising brigadier in the Spanish army, this polite and devoted son to his aging Basque mother, have sunk so low, and so quickly, to this level of depravity?  

 During the previous night in prison, Don Jose has asked himself over and over again, “how did I get here,” unable to disentangle his downfall from his obsession with Carmen, who still haunts his thoughts and dreams. As the black burlap sack is placed over his head, his breath becomes hot and short. The closeness under the fabric becomes unbearable, and as he reluctantly shuts his eyes, the story begins again with that fateful day he first met Carmen in the town square of Seville.  

 And so, our entire production takes place as a flashback. In the book on which the opera is based, the story is told from Don Jose’s perspective, so our director has a solid footing for this idea. But what really fascinates me about this time flip is how it allows Carmen to emerge as someone whose spirit surpasses death, a kind of Dionysian figure whose feminine strength is inextinguishable and will always rise again. She still haunts Don Jose as he waits to die. Don Jose represents society: initially he is morally upright and honest, but he is susceptible and hopeless to resist Carmen. His downfall represents the 19th century society’s inability to cope with unleashed female sexuality, which it feared would end in ruin for all. In this way, our production poses a timely question to us today in the 21st century: are we comfortable with female sexuality, or must it be feared and thwarted? Given some of the political decisions in our country in recent months over access to healthcare, this is as relevant a question as ever.