Why ‘Carmen’ is more relevant today than ever

On Thursday, April 27, Opera Philadelphia premieres its production of “Carmen” at the Academy of Music. A modernized take on one of the most popular operas of all time, director Paul Curran sets the scene in the 1950s, in an unnamed town that bears resemblance to Havana, Miami or perhaps Seville in Spain.

Daniela Mack, who opened Opera Philadelphia’s 2017-2018 season with the lead role in “Elizabeth Cree,” takes center stage once again as the fiery Carmen.

“She’s a woman out of time and definitely what I would consider a feminist,” Mack says. “She’s not content to live in the situation she finds herself. She lives on the edge, wants something different and isn’t concerned what people think of her.”

Carmen is at the center of a love triangle between military man, Don Jose (Evan LeRoy Johnson) and bullfighter, Escamillo (Adrian Timpau).

“It’s a story about passion, deceit and intrigue,” Mack says. “Don Jose becomes obsessed with her, and wants to possess her.”

In an effort to not spoil the ending for “Carmen” newbies, we’ll leave further plot discussion at the, but even if you’ve never seen this opera before, it’s very likely you already know the music.

“It’s one of my fave scores,” Mack says. “It’s so atmospheric.  It really transports you to the place and stood the test of time – permeating its way into pop culture in so many ways. Bizet used a lot of dance rhythms — it’s just catchy.”

While “Carmen” eventually became an iconic opera with unforgettable music, it initially wasn’t a success.

“When it opened it was so scandalous, and people were expecting to see stories of kings and gods,” says Mack. “They didn’t think they were going to see a story about common people — especially not a common woman who wasn’t demure or upper class, who was free in her sexuality. That was a big no no back then.”

Today, however, Mack believes Carmen’s character is more relevant than ever, especially in the wake of movements like #MeToo.

“Carmen being a fighter, and not content to just accept that she will be abused in many ways, like all the women around her, thats apropos of what’s going on today,” she says. “That’s why Paul [the director] updated it to be more modern. In the production meeting, he was talking about how women had to take over men’s jobs during World War II while  they were off fighting. When the war ended, the men moved back but the dynamic was changed forever.”

In Opera Philadelphia’s reimagined production, Carmen works in a cigarette factory — a new set of circumstances for a character Mack has played many times before.

“This will be my fourth time playing Carmen,” she reveals. “I have a long history with the piece. I was a chorus girl in ‘Carmen.’ I did a condensed version in graduate school. She’s amazing — such a strong, independent woman.”

When it comes to working in Philadelphia, Mack certainly feels the love.

“It’s a great city. I love the company,” she says. “They do really innovative and important work, and it’s an incredible gift for me that they brought me back for two leading female characters in this season. I’m very fortunate to have that.”

“Carmen” will be performed at the Academy of Music from April 27 through May 6. For more information, visit: operaphila.org.