For Nikola Printz, reprising the title role of “Carmen” at the San José Opera is like coming home. The mezzo-soprano says their connection to Bizet’s masterpiece has always had a special meaning.
“I have a long history with ‘Carmen’,” says Printz, who dazzled audiences as the doomed Queen of Carthage in the company’s “Dido and Aeneas” earlier this season. “The first aria I ever sang was ‘Habanera’, when I was 16. I only wanted to sing it because I saw Dorothy Dandridge in ‘Carmen Jones’ – singing with the voice of Marilyn Horne, of cours.”
“That’s what ‘Carmen’ was to me,” she says of the role, “and it was my introduction to opera. I was fascinated by her. She has been with me for a long time. I first played it 10 years ago, and each time it gets better and deeper and darker.
Deeper, darker descriptions may be fitting descriptions for OSJ’s new production, which pairs Printz with tenor Noah Stewart as Don José. Directed by Joseph Marcheso, the production also stars Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Micaëla and Eugene Brancoveanu as Escamillo, dancers from the Flamenco Society of San José and singers from the CANTA choir directed by Jose Chuy Hernández. “Carmen” opens February 12 for six performances under the direction of Lillian Groag.
Groag, an award-winning playwright and director whose work spans theater and opera, takes an elemental approach to this “Carmen,” an approach that draws close to Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 short story that inspired it. .
“First, we try to strip the play of the weight of ‘glamour’ that is inevitably attached to it by the romantic conceptions of Roma life favored by Hollywood,” Groag explained. “As a little girl, I also wanted to run away, imagining a wandering life where only good things happened and handsome big black men abounded, courtesy of 1950s movies.
“But you only have to go to Mérimée’s original to know that the world he created was nothing like that: a harsh world, especially for women, who were bought and sold like cattle and forced to work in unthinkable situations for the money they could bring in.”
The thrill of “Carmen,” notes Groag, “is seeing two extraordinary performers surround each other like panthers about to pounce. Noah Stewart has that rare combination of innate aristocracy and danger that, in the face of the savage unpredictability of Nikola Printz, makes contact explosive…. We hope they stay away, but fate intervenes.
Printz, a non-binary artist who uses the pronouns them and them, is happy to work with Groag, who they describe as an “actor manager.”
“As a queer, non-binary person viewing Carmen through the lens of my own experience, each time I’ve played the role a little different, a little grittier,” they said. “At first, I thought Carmen was walking around, flirting with people. Lillian’s idea of her is very faithful to the short story of Mérimée; Carmen is a Romi who has lived her whole life in violence. C that’s what makes her a survivor.
Stewart, the New York-based tenor who recently appeared on the Oakland Symphony’s “Sanctuary Road” program, has previously sung the role of Don José – but describes Groag’s approach as a game-changer.
“It’s a really exciting production,” he said. “Lillian wants us to highlight the danger, the grittyness of ‘Carmen.’ She pushes us to the level of the dramaturgy of this opera. You know, everyone knows the great arias, all those arias that we heard growing up. But the story is the thing.
“I see José as a young man who made bad decisions,” adds Stewart. “He had to leave the house because he killed someone. Now he’s stationed in those military barracks, and here’s Carmen, that woman who just picked him out of the crowd. She decides to conquer him, and there is this attraction, because she is not like the other women – certainly not the women of her small village.
Stewart, who was recently named Artist-in-Residence at the San Jose Opera, will sing the role of Tony in the company’s new production of “West Side Story” this spring. He admits that the last two years have been difficult for the opera. But he says Opera San Jose, which recently named Shawna Lucey as its new general manager, is making a bold comeback. “Things are different. We rehearse masked and they all protect us. But I feel like we have another chance to really bring all the elements of opera to the audience. It is a 100% commitment to act, to sing. There are fights, swords, knives. Flamenco dancers bring an authentic quality. It’s a big show, and we’re doing it. We will never let go. »
As they prepare for opening night, Printz accepts.
“If the last two years of the pandemic have shown us anything, it’s that people will find ways to survive. For me, Carmen is the image of resilience and challenge. I feel this fiery side of her, this thirst for life more than ever now.
Contact Georgia Rowe at [email protected]
By Georges Bizet, presented by Opera San Jose, directed by Lillian Groag
When: February 12-27
Or: California Theater, 345 S. 1st St., San Jose
Health and security: Proof of vaccination and booster (if eligible) required, masks must be worn in theater
Tickets: $55 to $195; www.operasj.org