What is your own relationship to opera? How did you become interested in the genre?
Kate Millet: My gateway into opera came through Gilbert and Sullivan. My grandparents were avid fans of the operettas and took me and my sister to every performance they could. Then my mother started taking lessons and got a few operatic roles and I was hooked. I performed in a few children’s choruses and started lessons myself as a teenager. Unfortunately, I walked away during my university years, started focusing on theatre and it's only in the last few years that I’ve come back to opera, again through Gilbert and Sullivan.
James Penn: I started out in the music tradition of the high Anglican Church. I discovered opera outside my family's influence, through taking private singing lessons and exploring different genres of music. It was actually a production of Carmen, starring Jose Carreras, that helped my mother to understand why opera had such a hold over my life.
I did my bachelor of music performance at VCA and a graduate diploma of opera at WAAPA. I've had an up and down relationship with opera. It's so hard to find the right teacher for your voice and learning style. I was lucky a few years ago to stumble across Christopher Bogg through the fierce recommendations of some friends and through him I've found Margaret Haggart, who has transformed how I think about my voice and it's capabilities. So, the journey has been emotional but worth it.
You have said that you are inspired by black box theatre. What is black box theatre and how can its principles translate to opera, which is usually an overtly extravagant art form?
KM: Black box theatre is the principle of taking a blank space, adding minimal lighting and props and just using the text and the actors to convey the meaning. I think it’s an underestimated form in opera right now. Opera can convey so much more meaning than traditional theatre through the added element of music which is designed to target our emotional core. Plus, it refocuses the production on the vocal quality and their connection with the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, I love grand operas - the spectacle, the grandeur; but I definitely think the more understated forms have a place at the table too. It especially works well for smaller companies with smaller resources. Rather than spending their limited budgets trying to replicate larger companies, the black box style gives them the opportunity to do something different and separate themselves. We live in a country with hundreds of amateur musical theatre companies, thousands of amateur dramatic societies and just a handful of amateur operatic companies. There is a gap between training and the professional arena - smaller companies with limited budgets, performing in a black box style, could fill this gap. You look overseas and there are those smaller companies trying new and different things with opera and that’s where a whole new generation of opera directors and producers are getting their start and where new interpretations get tested.
There are also added benefits of expanding the number of venues open to use. Since black box theatre doesn’t require fancy lighting grids or set requirements, these productions can be toured easily, increasing the audience who gets to experience the show. There are so many rural and regional areas who are denied opera simply because they lack the necessary infrastructure. Black box theatre only needs a room.
JP: It's not something I'm terribly familiar with - Kate introduced the idea to me, however, many companies perform operas in concert form and that strips back the grand scale of it all. Also, to me, black box, in a way, continues the tradition of chamber opera. Early opera didn’t have much ‘stuff’, but we still perform it today.
Considering the current epidemic of violence against women in our culture, why did you choose Carmen, the title character of which is often subject to exotified and sexually reductive portrayals, as your debut production?
KM: I chose it for several reasons. Firstly, I love it. The music, the characters… it’s one of my favourites. I also chose it because when I first started to study the story properly, I couldn’t understand how anyone could interpret Carmen as a femme fatale, or the villain of the piece, or how anyone could interpret Don Jose as some innocent who gets pulled into this other evil world. I started to read the words and the script and I saw characters that reflected stories I see in the news every week, when another woman falls victim to domestic violence or is murdered by an intimate partner. Studies show that the time when a woman leaves an abusive relationship is the most dangerous. I've read so many interpretations excusing Don Jose’s behaviour but at the end of the day, he is an adult who makes the choice to end her life. I feel very passionate about this. Any attempt to justify his actions as a lovesick man driven over the edge is powered by sexism pure and simple. Carmen makes it very clear from her introduction that she is not looking for love. She literally tells them all that she will only love someone who doesn’t love her back. I read the text and saw a man who thought he was entitled to whatever he wanted. He ignores her wishes, is openly violent to her on a number of occasions, and then murders her when she finally rejects him.
JP: I'm not entirely sure I agree with the premise of that question, actually. I feel Carmen has been reduced to that stereotype in the past, but I don't think that's all she is. I put forward Carmen because I like it, pure and simple. I think there are certain ways that the music and language meet up very well, for example, the almost homonyms - "la mort" and "l'amour" - showing the dichotomy between love and death. The subtle and not so subtle Spanish influences in the music, if sometimes cheesy, are signs of a very intelligent composer.
What has been the process of reinterpreting Carmen from a feminist perspective?
KM: Honestly, the words are all there. I have made sure to not change a single one. It’s more just exploring the motivations of the characters, exploring the interpretations of the words, giving Carmen back her dignity. She doesn’t mock Don Jose at the end of Act 3… it becomes an act of desperation to get an abusive partner out of her life. It's about looking at her motivations, not just his, looking at the power differences between Carmen and Don José, and working out a way to get the audience to identify with her. The default in these productions is for the audience to identify with José - providing justification for his actions. We're attempting to subvert that; to explain rather than justify his actions as well as provide depth and complexity to Carmen. I see her as an independent character who manipulates a man to get out of jail. She's not a perfect person, but then, none of us are. At the end of the day, however, Don José makes the choice to set her free, the choice to desert his post, the choice to murder her. He is an adult who needed to take responsibility for his actions.
JP: It's definitely taking the politeness out of people's singing. English speakers usually (particularly if they have had elocution lessons) speak in a backwards manner that sounds politer than that needed to sing opera. There is still this cultural expectation for women in particular to sound pretty. I've made a concerted effort to get my Carmen to be bolder and more assertive.
Audiences bring certain expectations to a performance of opera. In both its reimagining of Carmen and its choice of venue, Blanke Knochen Opera is going against the norm. How can you encourage audiences to abandon their expectations and view your production with fresh eyes?
KM: I think it’s important for an audience to seek out new interpretations of stories they’ve seen multiple times. I actually think it's necessary for opera to survive in a world increasingly aware of bigotry. It's hard to reconcile certain operas with modern politics - there are more than a few with problematic morals and themes. So I think if opera doesn't want to be seen as a relic of an unjust past, with no other viewpoint than that of the white European male, it needs to be open to the idea of new interpretations.
JP: I'm something of an opera snob myself. I prefer traditional interpretations. And yet I don't believe opera in this style should ever be done politely, or any opera for that matter. In all honesty, opera's roots lie in folk music. By tearing away the built up glamour, we expose the heart of it, which I think is the point of this style of opera. If you go elsewhere, you might not see the meaning at the centre of the opera. It's only when you strip all the stuff away that it is truly visible.
Young DJs and electronic musicians will be performing in the intermission of Carmen. Do you see potential for further interactions between opera and electronic dance music cultures in the future of BK Opera?
KM: Oh definitely. I think opera has the ability to be interact with all musical cultures.
JP: I honestly love electronica, in particular James Blake and Viktor Taiwo, so I wasn't really opposed to the idea of a sort of collaboration. I cannot see a reason why further and deeper interactions between these art forms shouldn't be on the horizon. I’m only partly joking when I ask- Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé made an album together, so why not this kind of collaboration?
How is BK Opera supporting the development of emerging operatic talent?
KM: Our entire cast is made up of emerging singers. We love the openness and eagerness they bring to new ideas!
JP: First of all, so many people sing French like it's Italian, which just doesn't sound good. I believe I have skills that help emerging singers get a grasp on the difficult French pronunciation. The fact that our performing of Carmen in French is a point of difference is plain confusing to me. Most of my singers asked me ‘are you singing it in French?’ and when I answered yes they were shocked. In the small space, our singers really have to work hard on their acting and movement skills because they cannot get away with anything with the audience right there.
Can you tell us about any future plans for BK Opera?
KM: We have a number of ideas in the pipeline, both small and very large, but as 2017 is not yet set in stone, let's just say "watch this space".
JP: Yes, watch this space. We’ve both got HUGE imaginations, so watch out!
Tickets are available for BK Opera's Carmen at Howler in Melbourne here.