Opera’s self-confessed “new boy” talks about sexual tension, operatic frustrations and rolling with the punches.

“I didn’t pick Carmen – Carmen picked me. She’s a seductress. A wild woman”. So says John Bell, the latest man to be snared in the sensual toils of opera’s original femme fatale.

We are catching up over lunch after a torrid morning’s rehearsal at the Opera Centre in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the last hour of which has seen a knife fight, several stabbings and what looked suspiciously like a case of sexual assault. It’s the final day before moving over to the Opera House for matters technical and Bell is putting the finishing touches to a number of disparate scenes from Bizet’s classic. Sex and violence hang heavy in the air, as do the usual frustrations of opera: will I still be able to sing while I’m being thrown across the floor? Are these handcuffs too tight? Can you help me down to my knees after you’ve stabbed me, please?

John Bell is directing Carmen for Opera Australia

Bell it turns out has most of the answers; after all he’s been working on the show, his second opera for the national company, for two years. “As soon as Tosca opened, Lyndon [Terracini] said to me ‘what about Carmen?” Bell explains. “I jumped at it, of course.” It wasn’t love at first sight, mind: “I knew it, of course, and I knew all the tunes, but I always felt, ‘oh, it’s a shame it’s not a Spanish opera.’ The French is so delicate at times and a bit tiddily pom, tiddily pom in that sort of mid-century French manner. I still think it would have been fascinating if a Spanish composer had done it, but even so, the depth of the emotion and passion and sheer excitement of Bizet is astonishing.”

Now 75 – though he strikes you as considerably younger – the Australian actor and director passed the baton at Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded back in 1990, to his successor Peter Evans, freeing himself up for more freelance projects. His acclaimed staging of Tosca for Opera Australia was an early indication that opera might be one way forward, but Bell suggests that should be a qualified statement. “I’m most fascinated by the psychology of the thing. Coming from a theatre background, that’s the thing that you always tune into first,” he says. “Are the characters credible; are they real; is the psychology convincing? And in Carmen it is. That terrible dance of death between those two main characters who can’t let go but have to destroy each other. But they know they’re doing it; they know they’ll be the death of each other. That’s George and Martha, it’s Strindberg – it’s everyday life for many people. So why do we choose people who are going to destroy us and why do we keep coming back for more? I find that fascinating. You can rationalise all you like, but you can’t explain that fatal attraction. And that’s what keeps it alive I think.”

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen for Dallas Opera in 2013

Carmen has been ‘alive’ more or less since its notoriously unsuccessful premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris back in 1875. Perhaps an opera house better known for its family-oriented shows was the wrong venue for a steamy psychodrama. Certainly critics railed at the amoral heroine. But they also attacked the score for perceived Wagnerisms – a charge that seems frankly bizarre listening to the work today and examining its delicate, Spanish-inflected orchestrations and its standalone numbers. “I find it extraordinary that Paris in the 19th century, the most decadent sexually rampant and predatory of all civilisations, would have been scandalised by an opera, I mean the hypocrisy is breath-taking,” Bell exclaims. “Of course, sexual tension is very much to the fore. To be a man you have to be either a gangster or a bullfighter or a soldier. A woman has to be available and men are always on the hunt, sniffing out women wherever they go. That sexual tension is a reflection of Bizet’s own surroundings. It couldn’t be made too overt in this period, but of course, it’s such sexy music. As soon as the Habanera starts up, everyone’s wriggling with suppressed – or not suppressed – sexual desire.”

The story of how Carmen went on to conquer hearts and minds is well documented, and since then it has been staged in every corner of the globe. The tempestuous ‘gypsy’ has found her way around the world in stagings and adaptations set everywhere from American parachute factories to South African townships. Opera Australia has two productions in its repertoire – the successful Francesca Zambello staging and Gale Edwards’ very different spectacle due to be revived next year for Handa Opera on the Harbour. “I suppose my first obligation was to not reproduce the last version,” Bell explains, “There’s no point setting it in period with lots of flamenco and horses coming on stage etc. etc. I immediately went contemporary, which I’ve always liked to do with Shakespeare, particularly. And a setting that was close enough to Seville without being off the planet. We started thinking about Mexico – that architecture, those colours, that sort of ambience – but then we started looking towards Cuba. Havana has the same kind of Spanish references, but there’s something decaying and falling apart about it – corrupt if you like. You could imagine that gangsters, the army and prostitutes would mingle quite happily in the same plaza. I’m not saying it’s in Cuba, but somewhere like Cuba. And it’s somewhere like now, because Cuba is a bit retro anyway.”

So, Carmen goes to Cuba, with sets by Michael Scott-Mitchell (who designed the monumental sets for Bell’s Tosca) and what Bell describes as “Jerome Robins meets Michael Jackson” choreography courtesy of Kelley Abbey. Always an exciting conductor, Andrea Molino leads a company headed by rising French star Clémentine Margaine (who has just stepped in to save the day at Salzburg this August after Joyce DiDonatao pulled out of their new staging of Il Templario, a 19th-century rarity by Otto Nicolai based on Ivanhoe). Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, who has impressed in Sydney as both Cavaradossi and Calaf, sings Don José. Bell and his team have cut most of the infamous spoken dialogue – “audiences today don’t need all that explanation, all that backstory stuff, we can join the dots much more readily,” Bell explains to create what he describes as a pretty trim production.

Yonghoon Lee as Cavaradossi in Bell’s 2013 production of Tosca for Opera Australia

Although one of Australia’s most experienced directors, Carmen is only Bell’s fourth real outing in what many traditional theatre practitioners find a bewildering art form. “I’m very much a new boy, still learning the ropes and the crazy, crazy world of opera – which is like no other crazy world!” he says with a rueful smile, admitting to enormous frustrations at times. “You just have to roll with the punches and not be startled or surprised. Everybody in the room tears their hair at some stage. Sometimes singers can’t come in because they’re in other operas, they’ve got a day off, they’ve got a cold so they can’t sing today. The main problem is scheduling, trying to get everyone together. I’ll never see the whole show until the general rehearsal, that’ll be it. The one and only time I’ll see it before the public sees it. That’s kind of frustrating.”

So how exactly does he cope in a world where you sometimes don’t get in-demand international lead singers until two or three weeks into the rehearsal period? “The first couple of weeks you use covers or second cast,” he explains, “and you never do things sequentially, it’s all just bits and pieces. You have to know the piece pretty well before you walk into the room. It’s really anybody’s guess as to how it will all come together at the last minute.”

There are some definite ladders to compensate for the snakes. “The great advantage is the singers all know the work,” Bell explains. “Unlike actors who come to rehearsal not knowing their lines and not having explored their characters, the singers come totally complete – they know the characters, they know the music and they know the libretto, so a lot of that work done already. The challenge then is to encourage them to see it freshly, through different eyes. But pretty frequently I agree totally with the singer’s approach. They might have done the role a number of times so they know what works and what doesn’t and generally I’m very flexible and open to their ideas.”

Watching that final scene in the rehearsal room, I can definitely report that Sydney audiences are in for some electrifying singing. Lee has the kind of projection that could strip paint (in a good way), while Margaine is the real deal as Carmen, her rich, wine-dark voice exuding musicality and sensual pleasure. And there’s clearly a strong element of sexual tension in the staging. Another one of Bell’s reasons for setting the opera in Cuba is because the Habanera is Cuban music. “French sailors heard it in Havana and took it back to Paris,” he explains. “It became a sort of cabaret hit, and so Bizet pinched it.”

So what does Bell think of Carmen and sex? Does Don José get to do the deed, despite all his complaining? Does Carmen have a lot of sex with people, and is she an early example of no-means-no? “I think Carmen is well-educated in sexuality,” Bell conjectures. “She chooses who and when and where. She and Don José are together when he leaves the army and they go off and live with the smugglers and they’re there for a month or more. Of course, they must have sex at that time. It just doesn’t get them very far. And as so often in life it all comes unstuck very easily.” In other words, as the French would say, “C’est la vie, c’est la guerre, c’est la pomme de terre.”

Opera Australia’s Carmen plays June 16 – August 12 at the Sydney Opera House