A pair of Opera Autralia soloists received a pleasant surprise this week when the company gave them an unexpected pat on the back. Carmen singers soprano Jane Ede and bass-baritone Adrian Tamburini celebrated their 100th performances in the roles of Frasquita and Zuniga during the run of John Bell’s Havana-inspired staging of Bizet at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Opera Australia CarmenJane Ede and Adrian Tamburini. Photos © Hernan Cabrera

To celebrate, Opera Australia honoured the two stalwarts with flowers, a flourish of gold balloons spelling out “100” and a chocolate cake that would likely features high on most opera singer’s list of 10 things I mustn’t eat before I go on stage.

Of course, the roles of Carmen’s best friend and Don José’s commanding officer may not get the big arias, but each is a vital part of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s well-oiled plot, and both singers have stood out over the years for their ability to make a supporting role into a lynchpin.

Limelight asked each of them to come up with a version of the opera seen from the perspective of their own character, and this is what they delivered.

Opera Australia Carmen

Jane Ede

OK, so Frasquita was described by John Bell in this production as “a gangster’s moll”. I guess she’s the girlfriend of the ‘leader of the pack’, but underneath her beehive and flashy jewellery, she’s smart and tough (think Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny).

So, in Frasquita’s words, “I’m with Merc (that’s my mate Mercedes) at the café, parting guys from their cash, when we spot Carmen trying to liven up the place. Poor old Lt. Zuniga tries it on with her, but we all know that isn’t happening. Then the best thing happens: Escamillo, the spunky bullfighter, walks in. I’m trying all my moves, so am rather surprised when he only sees Carmen. When my babe Dancairo arrives with a job, Carmen knocks it back. She’s in love… Again! We try to persuade her, but she shoos us away. She’s got a date… curious…

Anyway, I’m just finishing my nails when I hear Carmen calling. Zuniga’s there, off his face and fighting with another soldier, but Carmen and the boys get rid of him – Zuniga that is – good riddance! But hey! Is this THE guy? Well, he’s blown it now so he has to join the gang. And OMG he’s pulled out a ring. I’ve always wanted to be a bridesmaid!

Months later, we’re at the warehouse ‘sorting’ through merchandise (I got myself a real sweet coat). Carmen and Don José are bickering as per, so I amuse myself by cheating Merc at cards. Then I notice Carmen is upset – apparently she’s seen death in the cards. We try to cheer her up, but she’s really down. Dancairo wants to move the merch, but guards are blocking the way. Leave it to us babes, this is a job for the girls.

Now, I’m just getting to know a very nice officer when I hear Carmen yelling. José is totally trying to kill a guy. Escamillo? What’s he doing here? Is he here for Carmen? That girl gets all the luck! Anyway, he invites us to a bullfight. Eek! But I know exactly what I’m going to wear… However, on the day, Merc and I are worried. Carmen’s been with Escamillo for weeks but we just saw José hanging around and he looks terrible. I think Carmen should stay away from him and we try to tell her to leave, NOW, but she insists that they need to talk. I have a terrible feeling about this, so Merc and I run off to find the boys – maybe they can talk some sense into her. I hope she’ll be OK…”

Opera Australia, Carmen

Adrian Tamburini

“So, Carmen is about a guy called Zuniga…” This is usually the way I jokingly introduce the plot when friends ask me what it’s about. But in all seriousness, this is my ‘back story’ whenever I take the stage as Army Officer, Zuniga.

“Although married, I, the handsome and dashing Lt. Zuniga has been having an affair with Carmen for quite some time; how very Spanish. In exchange for – ahem – sexual favours and no-strings, I regularly turn a blind eye to Carmen’s illegal activities and her smuggler collaborators. Needless to say, I consider myself the dominant, alpha-male in town, the man who controls the status quo. I really have no idea that pretty much everyone, without exception, ridicules me behind my back.

This, however, all changes when a new recruit, Don José, arrives in town and Carmen is (frankly inexplicably) attracted to him. After she sings a borderline sleazy Habanera, I expect Carmen to offer me her flower and life will go along much as it always has but, alas, I’m immediately rejected and Carmen offers it to José.

In the local tavern, I make a feeble attempt at reconciliation but fail when some Toreador enters and – well, what do you know – he too, immediately falls for Carmen. I now find myself up against two men, and try one more time to assert my power over her. Returning an hour later, I’m drunk but ready for (the usually) self-gratifying, sexual episode only to find José is already in her room. Moments later he’s flanked by an armed band of smugglers.

I guess with two men now interested in her, Carmen has no more need for Zuniga. But I know too much of her illegal activities and as a witness can testify to the smuggling operation. Leopards, of course, do not change their spots, so in one last ditch effort to prove my machismo, I say to José, “Watch yourself, I’ll be back later”…

In my imagined version, Carmen summons the smugglers who kill Zuniga there and then…

Opera Australia’s Carmen is at Arts Centre Melbourne until May 26