The Danish director talks to Limelight about staging Carmen on the lake-stage at Bregenz ahead of its cinema transmission.

Carmen was one of the first operas that you’ve said you really connected to. What was it like coming to it now as a director? 

It was the first opera I ever saw, but I have always avoided directing it, because I always fear with Carmen either to end up with only the clichés of folklore Spain and Carmen as an exotic fantasy, complete with fan and flower in the hair – or that one tries to strip it of its clichés and end up killing the energy and passion of the story in the process by making it too clinical.

In Bregenz I felt the elements of nature gave us a chance to tell the story on a big scale with incredible force, but using a new way to capture the strong feelings through the elements of water and air rather than through the clichees that the original is often tied down by.

Carmen on the Lake. Photo: supplied.

What are the challenges of directing a production set in such a vast, unique environment?

There are, of course, plenty of challenges that you would never have in a normal operatic production: You worry about the weather, you have to consider how the light changes from day to night, and more than anything, of course, you have to worry about people getting distracted by the incredibly beautiful surroundings and you have to worry about scale. Everything is big, and some people sit very far away indeed, so you have to be quite conscious about how you express yourself and what you want to come across. Part of the solution to that is clarity and making sure that something is happening all the time, as you can not just rely on singer’s normal expressions to keep people’s interest for a long time, no matter how good they are. But the primary tool for me and Es Devlin was in thinking that even on this scale you can express something important, complex and deep about the characters, so it isn’t all just spectacle. We found it useful to always think of psychology expressed through space: Two people are 30 meters apart. One is up, one is down, and then they change places. There is a psychological triangle as someone is listening in on two other’s singing to each other. And through dynamic placement of groups and singers, you can help to express what they are singing about and how they feel. Psychology turned into space was the motto of this production.

How has Es Devlin’s extraordinary set helped to bring your vision alive? Could you talk a little bit about the use of the cards? 

From the outset, Es and I knew we wanted to use the special setting in Bregenz. We didn’t want to just put a big production on top of the water and blocking the view of the lake. We wanted to integrate the production with its location. This location offers two very special things: Air and water. So we started from the idea that we wanted a very transparent set that one could see through and that didn’t just sit on the water, but also one that could lead into the water and where we could use the water physically to tell the story.

In our reading the air above us represents Carmen’s dream of freedom – her desire never to confined or tied down, whereas the water below us, this incredible force of the water in the enormous lake, represents the passion and her sense of destiny weighing her down. The moment in the opera where these two concepts meet is in her aria in the third act, where she tries to read her future in the cards. She sees only death, but rejects this, as she doesn’t want to accept being defined or restricted even by her own destiny. Come what may, she says, and throws the cards up in the air. This moment – which also represents both her and José literally throwing their lives up in the air – was the inspiration for the set design.

The cards form some wonderful dynamic acting spaces, which can place characters in various heights relative to each other, and which at the same time becomes a projection surface, so the set can surprise us and change through the use of video and lights.

How did you envision the relationship between Carmen and Don José? Which elements in particular did you want to draw out in their interactions?

They are two outsiders, and they recognise this in the other. They both fight their inner demons – Carmen had a tough background growing up as an orphan gypsy child, and Jose lives in a constant fight between who he think his mother wants him to be, and who he really is. They see each other and recognise that the other one is also standing apart from society because of their demons, and they realise subconsciously that they need each other. Sadly, they cannot help each other: José wants to own Carmen, and Carmen is too afraid to give up her freedom. So they both cannot truly give into love. But I do think their relationship is love, even if they both struggle not to give into it.

I want us to feel the tragedy in seeing two people who could help each other, instead destroying each other in an unhealthy relationship.

Carmen on the Lake. Photo: supplied.

Why did you decide to stage Carmen’s death the way you did? Was it important to you to underline how brutal her ending really is?

In the opera, we often come to take it for granted that women get killed by men – but we need to remind ourselves and the audiences how brutal this act is. We knew we wanted to use the water, so in a double sense she gets drowned from José, but also – together with him – drown in their relationship and the passion it has unleashed.

The last scene is set as the water is rising around them, making it physically impossible for them to get away from each other, and uniting them in a desperate fight for their lives. But in the end it is Carmen who gets drowned, and we felt it was natural to use the water for this.

You require a lot of stage action and commitment from your principals. Did any of the stunts or blocking daunt them?

I don’t think a singer agrees to work in Bregenz if they are not curious and a bit hungry for the adventure of having to do things differently. I felt only that the singers were really keen to use the set and to do physically interesting things – even to the extent where sometimes we had to restrain them or tell them not to do things they wanted to do for safety reasons.

In Bregenz you need singers who want to make the action physical. Carmen is a story that needs a very strong physical energy to be told with the passion and brutality that makes it not just an exotic fantasy, but a very real story about violence and obsession.

Carmen on the Lake. Photo: supplied.

Although Carmen can seem like a very ‘big’ opera in terms of its locations, the amount of people onstage etc., it also has lots of intimate moments. How did you find the way to stage these moments? 

Intimate moments can work surprisingly well in Bregenz, even if you are far away. The key for me to understanding this stage is that you need to space out what happens between the characters, so they keep moving and demonstrate the dynamics of their exchanges also through movement. But even more importantly was to understand that what I think doesn’t work in Bregenz is when a singer is singing on his or her own. You need them always to sing TO someone else, and to create a dynamic in placing them not directly beneath each other, and preferably even to have a third party listen in or observe them. When Micaela sings her aria about how afraid she is – we need to show what she is afraid of: The height, and the smugglers down below. When Carmen sings to herself in her Act 3 aria, we can see her in this production literally singing to her own younger self. And when José and Micaëla sing a duet in Act 1, we see Carmen overhearing it which provokes her to kick off the fight in the factory in order to have José arrest her.

We also worked with live video projections in key moments. I always enjoyed shows in Bregenz, but felt there was something missing when after the performance I did not know what the lead singers looked like. So we selected key moments where we could project the faces of the lead singers up onto the set: Not so much to show that moment in itself, but in order to allow the audience to see what they look like and thus more easily to identify with the singer, also for the rest of the performance.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of this project?

I had SO much fun. It was rewarding in all possible ways: Working outdoors and getting so much exercise by working on this scale made for an amazing summer, the people who choose to work in Bregenz are all wonderful and open minded and want to work together to have a real adventure, but most importantly it is rewarding to know we can give 400,000 live audiences an operatic experience with a production of a masterpiece like Carmen. It feels as if here you can truly do what we all talk about: To reach a large new audience in an exciting and inviting way without compromising the quality. And that people as far away as Australia also get to enjoy it through the cinema broadcast makes it only even better.

CinemaLive will be releasing Carmen On The Lake in cinemas across Australia and New Zealand from October 21.

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