“La Tragedie de Carmen” by the Indianapolis Opera


(3/17/11 – Updated with a correction.  See below.)

I made the little video above with my trusty iPhone.   Visiting stage director/production designer Joachim Schamberger was very gracious about giving me some of his time during a very busy week for the Indianapolis Opera.  Thank you again, Joachim!

I am going to indulge myself with an even-longer-than-usual post about my first experience of the Indianapolis Opera a) because it was such a core-shaker, b) because I usually only write reviews of performances, not rehearsals, c) because I really have no business reviewing opera at all, and d) did I mention it was a life-changing experience?

If you don’t have time to read something long, at least let me tell you that this particular production of “Carmen” in the intimate space at the new Frank and Katrina Basile Opera Center is a profound and accessible treat.  There are only four more chances to experience it yourself.  Tickets are $34 and $60 and may be purchased through the Indianapolis Opera’s website: www.IndyOpera.org.

Okay, so here’s the detailed version of my night at the opera (if you want to know only about the show itself, jump down a few screens to “The Show”):

Last Wednesday I was supposed to attend a Trivia Night event with one of my Twitter buddies, Scott Semester.  I was looking forward to it.

But then Aimee Morgan, media contact for the Indianapolis Opera, emailed me to invite me to a final dress rehearsal of their production of Peter Brook’s adaptation of Georges Bizet’s “La Tragedie de Carmen.”  It would be their first production in the new Frank and Katrina Basile Opera Center at 40th and Penn on the north side of Indianapolis, not far from their other home, Clowes Memorial Hall.  The invitation included a tour of the new facility and a hands-on exploration of the set.

How could Curiosity Girl pass that up?  Especially since I knew virtually nothing about opera.  My opera experience consisted of one trip to see “La Boheme” with my friend Timothy William Wesley over 30 years ago.

(Tim, if you happen to Google yourself and find this post, I would like to tell you in person that I will always be grateful to you for introducing me to opera back then, even though I apparently wasn’t ready for it yet.  I’m sorry we lost touch after you moved to California!)

Anyway, I would never have had the courage to ask for a media pass to review one of the official performances of the Indianapolis Opera.  But since they asked me to visit…Yes!  I would love to!

I asked Scott if he would like to go with me to the opera instead of Trivia Night.  I was delighted to learn that he loves opera and is, in fact, learning how to sing it himself.  He has agreed to sing with the Lyric Opera Theatre of Indianapolis this summer.

Scott said he would love to go with me on my IO adventure.  He asked about the dress code.  I gulped and emailed Aimee to ask.  She consulted someone else, who wrote back: “We’re pretty casual at the opera, especially at the dress rehearsal.  Just come in whatever you feel comfortable in.” 

(Whew!)  So I wore a print skirt and solid sweater set, which is pretty much all I have in my closet anyway.  Scott wore jeans, a nice shirt, and a sport coat.  I suspect that many people dress up more at regular opera performances, but it is nice to know that I wouldn’t be kicked out for wearing my usual even then.

The “Tour” (aka Hanging Out With Nicole)

Indianapolis Opera’s marketing director, Nicole Brandt, met us in the lobby of the Basile Opera Center, formerly a Greek Orthodox Church.  We could glimpse several pews through a doorway.

(You can see some “before” and “after” photos of the renovation of the theater space, which used to be the church’s basketball court, I think, on this page of the Indianapolis Opera’s Facebook profile:


More renovations are in the works.)

Nicole gave me a thick and truly useful media kit that included several fact sheets, newspaper clippings, artist biographies, a “Guide for First-Timers” pamphlet, and more.  (Yay!)  Then she led us back to the theater space itself, which was furnished with several rows of chairs with cushy seats on risers.  The cast was on the small stage doing some last-minute polishing with the fight choreographer, Rob Johansen.

“Hey!” I thought. “I know him!”  I don’t know Rob to speak to, but I have loved his acting and directing work with several professional theatres around town, including the Indiana Repertory Theatre and ShadowApe Theatre Company.

The performers were still on the small, virtually bare, all-black stage and soon they would be backstage getting ready to perform, so the “tour” was more like a chance to hang out with Nicole and ask her questions while surrounded by world-class artists doing their thing, which was fine by me.  The following are not direct quotes, but I believe the gist of them is accurate.  I thought the information would be more fun for you to read in conversation form:

“Are the seats assigned or can you sit anywhere you like?” I asked.  First things first.

“The seats and risers are rented for now,” Nicole said. “The seats are assigned because we want the typical opera-goer who is used to Clowes Hall to feel comfortable here, too.  Clowes seats thousands.  This space seats only a couple hundred.”

“Which is the best seat?” Scott asked.

Nicole smiled.  “We are still figuring that out, especially in terms of pricing.  A seat in the center here is like the 10th row at Clowes in terms of proximity to the stage.”

“Really, they’re all good,” Scott said, looking around.

“Where will everyone park?” I wanted to know.

“We expect most people will park in the street and use the front entrance,” Nicole said.  “There are a few parking spaces in back of the building but they will be reserved for…” 

And I can’t remember now what Nicole called them (maybe Impresario Circle members?) but I understood that she meant the People With Money, the Most Generous Donors, aka my heroes because they make it possible for the rest of us to buy reasonably-priced tickets. 

I also wanted to know if the Indianapolis Opera owned the building or was renting it.  Yes, I know that was rude, but I asked it anyway.

Nicole said something like: “The CEO of Angie’s List bought it for the Indianapolis Opera but we are renting it from him for two years first.  After two years, he will donate the building to us.” 

Nicole shared with us some of the hundreds of details that the staff members have been working on in order to get the space ready for opening night.  Things that I never would have thought of, like whether or not to buy a chime to alert people that it is time to take their seats, and if so, what kind of chime.

I said that although it must be a lot of work, it must also be very exciting.

“Yes,” Nicole said.  “The staff have a strong feeling of ownership since we have all been working so hard to get this place ready.”

I asked if all of the Indianapolis Opera’s shows would be in this space from now on.

“No.  Next season, three shows will be at Clowes and one will be here.  The season will be announced at the performance Friday night but I will make sure you get the news, too.”

(Later I read in my press kit that the Opera Center will be used for rehearsals, meetings, classes, private voice studios for visiting artists, summer opera camps, and more.)

Nicole also shared with us some thoughts about this particular production.  “It is specifically meant for a theatre of this size,” she said.  “There is no chorus like there is in the Bizet version, nor are there any big, elaborate set pieces.”

She drew our attention to a huge screen at the back of the tiny stage.  “All of the scenery is provided by the projections but they are not very literal.”

I didn’t know what she meant by that (it made sense later) but I looked at the screen that reached all the way to the ceiling and said, “I don’t see a box for the English translation…”

“Oh, there are supertitles,” she assured me.  “Like subtitles in a movie but they show up at the top of the screen.  But really, you almost don’t need them in this piece.”  (Again, I only understood later what she meant.)

I asked about the performers and the rehearsal process.  Nicole said that all of the principals are fulltime professional opera singers.  They rehearse eight hours a day.  This show is “double-cast,” meaning there are two sets of performers, because on some days during the two-weekend run there are two performances.  Opera singing is so physically challenging that you can’t make an opera singer sing a whole opera twice in one day and expect each performance to be his or her best. 

“Who comes to the opera in Indianapolis?” Scott asked.

“All ages,” Nicole said. 

(Later I read a sheet in my press kit that gives the following demographics:  “IO’s subscriber base and main stage audience: 52% over the age of 50; 52% female and 48% male; 87% live in Indiana…Nearly 25% of IO audience is under the age of 35.”  Source: Arts Marketing Research and Emmis Data Direct)

Nicole continued, “People in the 55+ age range are our diehard opera fans.”

“So the Opera’s audience is like the Symphony’s audience?” Scott asked.

“Yes,” Nicole said with affection, “but we like to say that the opera audience likes to party more.  They like to drink and carry on.”

“Ah,” said Scott.  “So do you acknowledge that?  Will there be a bar in the lobby?”

“Yes, and a by-invitation-only Black Tie Tailgate Party on opening night.”

By this time a busload or two of teenagers from Muncie had arrived and filled the seats that had been labeled for them.   Several other guests had arrived as well.  Nicole encouraged Scott and me to sit wherever we liked.  We chose the seats that I would be willing to pay $60 for: in the fourth row back, center aisle.

Someone whose name I didn’t catch gave the “curtain” talk and introduced the conductor, James Caraher, who is also the IO’s artistic director.  Fourteen members of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra had set up their instruments and music stands off to the side of the stage.  James’s conductor’s podium or stand or whatever you call it was there, too.  He told us that this arrangement was new and very different for both the orchestra and the singers.  The singers were used to seeing their conductor right down in front of them, in the orchestra pit, but there is no orchestra pit at the new Opera Center. 

I understood the difficulty, but I confess that I liked being able to glance over and see the musicians doing their thing.

James reminded us that even though they were hoping to go straight through, it was still a dress rehearsal and they might have to stop and adjust something.  He smiled in relaxed way, though, and wished us an enjoyable experience.

Then he went to his place, lifted his hands, and “La Tragedie de Carmen” began.

(Photo of James Caraher taken by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

The Story

There is a lot to explore in this sexy, violent, and tragic story, but at least on one level the story is this:

A beautiful woman, Carmen (Ariana Chris) blames fate for her unhappiness even as she rebels again and again, with one man after another, determined to be free of her fate.  First she viciously lures a soldier, Don Jose (Clayton Hilley), away from Micaela (Rachel Elizabeth Copeland), the sweet young woman that loves him.  Then, when he turns out to be not what she wanted after all, she hooks up with a bullfighter, Escamillo (Darren Stokes.)  She never does realize that her own choices are what caused her unhappiness.

(Ariana Chris and Clayton Hilley – photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

The Show

The many layers of rich artistic pleasure in this supposedly non-extravagant piece made me swoon.

I went in expecting to have a good time, but I also expected a lot of stand-and-sing, stand-and-sing, if you know what I mean.  Instead, to my surprise and delight, the acting was as rich and exquisite as the singing was.  Instead of being all stand-and-sing, the show was all flirt-and-fight-and-sing.  There was a lot of interaction and movement among the actors, plus a lot of subtle, nonverbal communication about the characters’ relationships and their internal thoughts and feelings. It was all organically blended with the phenomenal singing so that it seemed perfectly believable for the characters to be singing while making love or singing while bleeding or whatever. 

(photo of Ariana Chris and Clayton Hilley taken by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

When Nicole said that you don’t even need to look at the English supertitles, I think she meant that even if you don’t know French, you can understand what is happening simply because the acting is so nuanced and clear.

Meanwhile, at the back of the stage – close enough to envelope the performers but not so close as to distract from them or overwhelm them – were the huge projections.  Production designer Joachim Schamberger used his computer and his collection of original images to create a unique, movement-filled film collage that perfectly enhances the moods, events, and themes of the story.

As Nicole said, the projections are not a literal background for the individual settings.  The projections include wordless foreshadowing and flashbacks.  They include images that are almost surreal – of roses, tarot cards, mental and physical landscapes, and more.  Some of the images are black and white, others are tinged with color.  All are both old-timey and timeless.

(Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

In front of the projections are the exquisite live actors, also conveying so much without English words about their relationships to each other and their internal emotional states.

(Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

And on top of all that – and under it and permeating it – is the music!  The gift-from-Heaven music that is right there with you, nothing in between you and its live producers except a few feet of air.

In fact, the whole experience is surreal but not faked, if that makes sense.  Like snorkeling in the water above a coral reef. 

Time passed quickly Wednesday night, both in real life and in the show.  For example, Carmen knifed Micaela…and when Micaela came back out on stage a few scenes later, a real scar seemed to have formed on her forehead. 

(Rachel Elizabeth Copeland as Micaela – photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

The show itself was 90 minutes with no intermission but I know this only because my press kit says so.  It seemed much shorter than that as I was experiencing it.

Although the set, other than the projections, is very plain – just a black floor, black curtains at the sides, and a long, low, bed-sized black box in the middle – the other design elements are satisfyingly rich.  Props include beautiful jeweled daggers and a fair amount of blood.  Not “Lieutenant of Inishmore” amounts of blood, mind you, but enough to be dismaying, and definitely convincing.  The costumes include a dazzling golden outfit for Escamillo the toreador.

(Photo of Darren Stokes and Ariana Chris was taken by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

The story was easy to follow and I recognized some of the songs. (Or am I supposed to call them arias?)   I found myself still humming Escamillo’s “Toreador en garde…” song the next morning as I made coffee in the staff kitchen at my day job.

But wait, I am getting ahead of myself…

(LtoR: Ariana Chris, Thomas Gunther, Patrick McMonigle? and Clayton Hilley – photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

The Post-Show Discussion

I was full-out weeping during the last part of the show, so when the lights came up and the performers came back on stage to take questions, I was in no shape to ask any.  However, I listened with interest to the questions asked by other audience members.

A little girl in front, for example, raised her hand enthusiastically but then was only able to whisper.  Her mother finally said for her, “She is trying to say that she wants to be an opera singer when she grows up.”

“Oh, then you must come up here and sit with us!” said Carmen, aka Ariana Chris, smiling and beckoning with her arms.  The girl did go up and sit between the two divas (and I use the word “diva” in the most respectful, admiring way) for the whole Q&A period.

One of the teenagers said how wow’d he had been by the projections.  He also wanted to know if opera singers are divided like the members of his church choir – i.e., tenor, bass, soprano, and alto.

“Yes,” said the tenor (Don Jose, aka Clayton Hilley.)  “And we all happen to be sitting here in that order.”  He pointed to himself and then Escamillo (bass Darren Stokes), Carmen (alto Ariana Chris), and Micaela (soprano Rachel Elizabeth Copeland.)  Actually, I think he had another word for Ariana’s part.  I’m sorry I can’t remember what it was. (3/17/11 – See also update* at the very bottom of this post!)

Another teen asked how it felt to be performing in this new venue.

Ariana Chris (Carmen) said, “It sounds very different to us to perform here instead of in a large hall.  Also, the maestro is not right in front of us.  Did you see me leaning to try to see him?”  (We all shook our heads, no.)  “But here there are more nuances for the audience to pick up on.  ‘Carmen’ is always sexy and fun but it is especially gritty and violent in this space.  There is a lot more action, a lot more running around, dancing, and jumping.”  She laughed.  “I am covered in bruises.”

Escamillo (Darren Stokes) added that in such an intimate space, it is easier for the audience to notice the performers’ mistakes. 

We all looked at each other in surprise and asked, “Did you notice any mistakes?”  “Nope, not me.”  “Me neither!”  It had all sounded great to us.

Someone asked about the fighting.  Rachel Elizabeth Copeland (Micaela) told how she produces the blood from her wounds when Carmen slashes her with a knife.  Rachel said, “I have the fake blood packet in my pocket.”  Since she is leaning over after the attack, the audience doesn’t see her take it out.

“But I couldn’t get it opened tonight!” she said.  “Finally, I just bit it open.  Part of the mixture is soap, so…blech!”

It may have tasted horrible but it looked completely real on Micaela’s forehead.  When Micaela finally looked up and faced the audience at that point in the show, she looked truly cut, truly in shock and pain.

Rachel and the other performers also talked about fight choreographer Rob Johansen’s coaching.  “He shows us how to make it look real but while keeping it completely safe for the performers in real life.”

I loved listening to all of the questions and answers.  I loved that in person, these extraordinarily gifted artists are just regular folks. 

Two Final Conversations and Some Photos

Nicole had said that it would be okay for me to ask Joachim Schamberger if he would make a little video with me, so even though I was still shaking and sniffling from the power of the show, I hung around until Joachim acknowledged me.  He was very gracious about granting my request, an extra special gift since the only people that were going home at that point were the audience members.  Everyone else was staying for “notes” and/or a little more rehearsal.

After Joachim and I made the little video in a quiet corner and said goodbye, the Indianapolis Opera’s Director of Development, Joe Peacock, found me a program to go with my press kit and explained which names belonged to the cast I had seen. 

In addition to the four double-cast principals, there are three supernumeraries (supporting roles) that are played by the same three men for every performance since they don’t sing.  (Or they don’t sing very much.)  Michael Mills plays Zuniga, another of Carmen’s flings.   Patrick McMonigle plays another character, named Garcia.  Usually, Howard Baetzhold plays Lillas Pastia, Carmen’s sort-of friend and tavern owner, but Joe told me that Wednesday night Howard’s plane had been delayed and he couldn’t make the rehearsal.  So, the other Escamillo, Thomas Gunther, stepped in for him!

Joe said it was probably the first time a supernumerary had ever had such an esteemed understudy!

I was impressed that Thomas had been able to do such a good job with the role on such short notice.  That tavern keeper may not sing much, but he has a lot of scurrying around to do in relation to Carmen’s adventures.

Here is the full “who did what” of the Artistic Personnel:

  • Conductor: James Caraher
  • Stage Director: Joachim Schamberger
  • Fight Choreographer: Rob Johansen
  • Production Designer: Joachim Schamberger
  • Costume Designer: Indiana University Opera
  • Lighting Designer: Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein
  • Wig/Make-up Designer: Amanda Bailey
  • Production Stage Manager: Deborah Jo Barrett

The next day, Nicole emailed me the photos you see in this post.  They were all taken by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr. and almost all taken during the rehearsal that Scott and I saw.

(Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr. – www.DenisKelly.com )

Up Next at the Indianapolis Opera

As the IO’s artist-in-residence, Joachim Schamberger will also stage direct “La Traviata,” the final piece in the 2010-2011 season.  James Caraher will conduct the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.  “La Traviata” will be performed in Italian with English supertitles at Clowes Memorial Hall at 8pm on Friday, May 13 and at 2pm on Sunday, May 15.  For more information and to buy tickets, please go www.operaindy.org.

Here is the information that Aimee sent me about the just-announced 2011-2012 season:


INDIANAPOLIS- Indianapolis Opera’s 36th season launches with four full-scale productions scheduled for performance at Clowes Memorial Hall and the newly renovated Basile Opera Center. The season ranges from the classic good verses evil story of Faust to one-act comedic operas such as A Water Bird Talk, a lecture to an Audubon Society gone awry, and Bon Appetit!, in humorous homage to Julie Child.

Indianapolis Opera 2011-2012 Season

Madama Butterfly

When: Sept. 23 & 25, 2011

Where: Clowes Memorial Hall, 4602 Sunset Ave., Indianapolis

Cost: $30, $70, $98, $115


A Water Bird Talk & Bon Appetit!

When: Nov. 4-13, 2011 (six performances)

Where: Basile Opera Center, 4011 N. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis

Cost: $34, $60


Opera Goes to the Movies

When: March 9 & 11, 2012

Where: Clowes Memorial Hall, 4602 Sunset Ave., Indianapolis

Cost: $30, $70, $98, $115



When: May 4 & 6, 2012

Where: Clowes Memorial Hall, 4602 Sunset Ave., Indianapolis

Cost: $30, $70, $98, $115

Discounts are available for seniors, military personnel and students. Season subscription cost is $105-$360. For tickets and further information, visit www.indyopera.org.


‘See you at the theatres….and now, too, at the opera!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

P.S. – Follow me (@IndyTheatre) and/or the topic #indystage on Twitter.com.  I never tweet during a show (and I beg you not to take your phone out during a show either, for any reason!) but I often tweet first impressions during intermission or immediately after a show.

P.P.S. – After we went our separate ways on Wednesday night, Scott tweeted that he had loved the evening’s adventure, too, and  that this production would be a wonderful introduction to opera for someone who had never been.  I agree!

* Update 3/17/11 – When I first posted this blog entry, I had Carmen as a soprano part and Micaela as an alto part.  No one had called them that; I apologize for my misquote.  I think I just assumed that the title role would go to a soprano because in my church – whose music I love, by the way – the sopranos get to sing the interesting melodies in the hymnal and the altos are supposed to sing basically the same note over and over again.  (Guess which part I am?) 

But today I received an email from Rachel E. Copeland that said, in part:

This is Rachel E. Copeland, the singer whom you met after coming to our dress rehearsal last week of IO’s Carmen. I read your review of our performance and appreciate it very much. However (and I hope you don’t mind), I wanted to point out that Carmen (Ariana Chris) is the alto role and the role of Micaela (myself) is the soprano. Her lines consistently sit lower (this is called a tessitura) and her voice fills out and blooms more in the lower register. You also were wondering what the other term that Clay used to describe an alto- it is mezzo-soprano, which usually just goes by mezzo (in Italian this actually means medium or middle soprano) in operatic terms.

Let me know if you have any more questions or if there is anything that I can help you out with. I hope you don’t mind that I shared this info with you…. 🙂

I didn’t, and don’t, mind at all!  On the contrary, I was very glad to receive the information, and honored that Rachel had a) read my blog and b) taken the time to write to me, and with such kindness.  Thanks again, Rachel!

Also, from now on when I try to sing in church, I am going to imagine my voice “filling out and blooming in the lower register.”  Thanks for that image, too!

H. Baugh

Leave a Reply