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San Francisco’s Long, Passionate Affair with Carmen

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2019.  J’Nai Bridges as Carmen, seducing Spanish soldiers, and her audience, at the San Francisco Opera

For over 92 years Georges Bizet’s Carmen has carried on a great love affair with San Francisco.  Carmen made her debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1927 at the Civic Auditorium.  Over the decades, she’s continued to sing and seduce her way through some 192 performances in San Francisco, and through the years she’s changed her style, her look and her sirens, who in turn have reflected the eras they performed in.

1931. San Francisco Opera dancers

1931. San Francisco Opera gypsy dancers in Carmen.

You may be asking yourself, “Why her?  Why is Carmen such an indelible, inseparable part of the San Francisco stage?  Why not some other opera?”  Well, the answer may be quite simple, Carmen and San Francisco get along so well because they have so much in common.

Like San Francisco, Carmen is beautiful, expressive, stubbornly independent, openly hedonistic, and in constant revolt against her federal government.  Sound familiar?  And like San Francisco, the gypsie Carmen might steal your heart, your wallet, and leave you to wake up in the morning, smiling, shrouded in a fog, and ready for more.  It’s the story of a gorgeous gypsie woman who seduces her world while demanding her free will…and dying to preserve it.

1981. Carmen as Hanna Schwarz, performing with Plácido Domingo, SF Opera

We asked San Francisco Opera expert, Dramaturg, and all around mensch, Dr. Clifford “Kip” Cranna about the history of Carmen in San Francisco, and about his favorite performances over the years.  So let’s take a ride down operatic memory lane, shall we?

1934. French soprano Ninon Vallin as Carmen, SF Opera.

(BAS)Are there any stories/anecdotes about certain performers through the years that you would like to share?
Dr. Cranna: “In 1991 we were rehearsing Carmen with a sexy newcomer named Denyce Graves.  I recall that in the piano dress rehearsal she made a false step off a raised platform, and out in the house we could hear a slight crunching sound.  She winced and uttered an audible expletive.  She had broken her ankle, we later learned. But there was no way she was going to cancel.  She performed wearing a cast, and was no less sexy than before!”

1991. Denyce Graves as the title role in Bizet’s Carmen, at SF Opera.

When was Carmen first performed at the SF Opera House?
1927 was San Francisco Opera’s first Carmen, performed at Civic Auditorium, which was our home for most of our first 10 years. Carmen was in the season again in 1928, when we performed at Dreamland Auditorium at Post and Steiner, an ice skating rink and music venue later known as Winterland, which became a venue for Bill Graham’s rock concerts. Carmen was in the 1931 season back at Civic Auditorium.  The first Carmen to come along after the War Memorial Opera House opened in 1932 was in the 1934 season.

1981. Act I of Bizet’s Carmen, sets by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle Ponnelle, at SF Opera.  Photo Ron Scherl

What are the biggest differences between the first performance and today’s performance?
Those early performances featured the sung recitatives that had been composed by Ernest Guiraud shortly after Bizet’s death, replacing the original spoken dialogue.  This was the standard way of doing the opera here until 1981 where the spoken dialogues become the norm.

How many performers, crew, & musicians are working on Carmen now?
The forces required for each performance are impressive, including 105 performers (cast, chorus, children’s chorus, dancers and supernumeraries), 62 musicians in the pit, 5 onstage or backstage musicians, and 43 stage crew. Of course, there are also many others who contribute immeasurably to each performance from wardrobe, wigs and make-up, wardrobe, the costume department, and the crew who prepared the stage for Carmen, among others. It takes a village!

2016. Carmen with a modern look, a Calixto Bieito production. Photo by Cory Weaver

Why is Carmen a good choice for San Francisco?
Besides its captivating and colorful score and great tunes, the story of Carmen resonates now as it originally did, as a vivid musical and dramatic portrait of a headstrong, free-spirited, passionate, and brave woman whose determination not to be dominated by men causes her downfall as she defiantly stares down her fate.

Who are some of your favorite Carmens over the years and why?
I loved Teresa Berganza’s sophisticated vocalism (1981), basked in Denyce Graves’ sultry sexiness (1991 and 1998), and was impressed by Olga Borodina’s sheer vocal power (1996).

Denyce Graves Sings the Habanera from Carmen:

How are you enjoying J’Nai Bridges’ performance so far?
I think J’Nai was born to sing Carmen. She has the looks, the voice, and especially the dramatic flair.  You can’t take your eyes off her.

We agree!  Favorite year for costumes?
When the Ponnelle Carmen was new in 1981, I thought the costumes designed by Werner Juerke, evocative of the Spanish Civil War era, were very striking.

2019. J’Nai Bridges as the title role in Bizet’s Carmen. Photo by Cory Weaver

Most interesting set design over the years?
The Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production, new in 1981, is hard to forget.  It was strikingly huge, taking 3 intermissions for the set changes. It seemed to me very Spanish.  Most impressive was Act III with the smugglers lowering a huge canon with a crane over a big mountain cliff that formed the backdrop for the entire act. We did this original Ponnelle in four different seasons before it was replaced by a new Lotfi Mansouri production designed for the vast expanse of the Civic Auditorium, where we returned for 1996-97 while the War Memorial Opera House was undergoing seismic retrofit and renovation. The Mansouri production was revived in June 1998 when we were back in the Opera House, but it didn’t look as good on the stage here as it had at the Civic, so we purchased a scaled down clone of the Ponnelle (the original had been discarded) which was created for a smaller stage in Geneva. It worked fine on our stage, and we did it in three seasons, but missed the grand scale of the “Big Ponnelle.”

1875 lithographic poster for the first première of Georges Bizet’s Carmen in Paris.

This writer was lucky enough to catch Carmen at San Francisco Opera this past Friday.  It’s aria, design, and music was as stunning as ever.  J’Nai Bridges as Carmen is gorgeous and captivating, Matthew Polenzani as Don José is debonair, Anita Hartig as Micaëla is magical, and Kyle Ketelsen as Escamillo is invigorating.  For more information, meet the cast here.  And of course for tickets (before they’re all gone) look here. This Carmen will run in SF until 6/29/19, and future Carmens may run for many, many years to come.

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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