‘Carmen’: Handa Opera on Sydney harbour – Rinat Shaham’s insights

In an overnight transformation, mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic has shed several decades from her persona and gone from singing the role of one doomed gypsy to another.

The day after the closing performance of Il Trovatore, in which she portrayed Azucena, she was rehearsing the role of Carmen which she will sing in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, sharing the role with Israeli born mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham. The production opens in Sydney – or more correctly – on Sydney’s waters on March 22nd and continues until April 12th.

The expanded staging requirements means that rehearsals have moved to the proverbial ‘secret location’ in Western Sydney, and the staff of Opera Australia’s headquarters in Surry Hills have been spared the constant drum above their heads as the flamenco dancers go through their paces in the top floor rehearsal studios,

I spent an afternoon at rehearsals watching the opera come to life and speaking with Rinat Shaham.

The role of Carmen could well have been written for Shaham.  The raven-haired olive-skinned singer speaks with a beautifully modulated voice; the accent and turn of phrase are Mediterranean layered with years of living in the US.

To say that Shaham has made the role of Carmen her own is not an exaggeration, although it belies the breadth of her ability. This mezzo-soprano has performed diverse roles in operas from Mozart to Poulenc , in recitals and orchestral works, on disc and DVD.

But Carmen is what we’re here to talk about – a role she sang for her debut at Glyndebourne in 2004. Since then she has reprised the role internationally, at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and around Italy, at the major opera houses of Germany and Canada, in Israel, Lisbon, Japan, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, and in New York, for the New York City Opera and  as a cover of the role at the Metropolitan Opera.

Most importantly for Sydney audiences, Shaham won many fans when she sang the role on stage and at Opera in the Domain for Opera Australia in their 2010/11 season. She also sang Carmen at Park  Hayarkon in Tel Aviv, and is well accustomed to portraying the role in larger- than- life outdoor performances.

Given the scale of the performance and the consequent need for amplifying the voices, I asked Rinat Shaham if she had to alter the way she sang. “I don’t think so” she concluded. ” Part of the excitement of this format, especially for people experiencing  Carmen  for the first time, is to hear a voice which sings in an operatic technique and with a different way of vocal production than the ‘pop’ singing that we’re used to hearing over microphones today. I think it would be a good thing to hear. There is no reason for us to adjust our voice – the technicians will set the ‘mikes’ in a way that will ensure that we sound the way we’re trained.  These days the microphones are so small they don’t interfere with the vocal apparatus or with technique. The technology is absolutely perfect”

Managing the visual impact is another dimension to consider. The distance of the performers from the audience demands a level of visual over-statement not required on the opera stage.  Yet, filming the production will expose these details at close quarters. Ultimately it is a fine balance between conveying the detail and caricature. The fans have to be big enough to be seen from afar but not disproportionately large; likewise the details on the costumes, the make-up and  a myriad other minutiae.

Shaham’s view is that the secret to filling the large arena in which she will perform  is in the movements and in clever staging.  She refers to the work of choreographer Kelley Abbey  ” We’re using a  wonderful choreographer, so it’s not the acting itself or the singing, but the placement of the actors and the singers which are a little bit different. For example,  when we sing to each other in an intimate space we would be physically very close; however, in that large scale it looks better from far away if we’re not too close. Other than this I don’t think that exaggerating the movements or the voice is really necessary…and for me, I don’t have to work too hard at conveying the intimacy despite the spacing. When there is a camera watching you from close up you can actually be much more nuanced and I’m very much in favour of that.”

In the background, Abbey’s dancers are limbering up, wearing flamenco shoes and extravagantly flounced red and black skirts gorged with sequins.  Abbey has won Green Room, Mo and Helpmann Awards for both performance – Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, the lead in Fame, the Musical – and for choreography, most notably, Happy Feet. Diminutive in her build, she takes her troupe of dancers through their blazing routine at furious tempi. A highlight of the dance sequences is the giant skirt scene, featuring dance captain Kate Wormald swathed in a skirt, 4 metres in diameter, that flutters like the flames of a fire, attended by 7 danseurs.

'Carmen' dance captain Kate Wormald goes through her paces.

” Comparisons with conventional opera are difficult” says Shaham. ” I don’t  know what to compare it to. It is like a sample of what opera is, so for people who are not familiar with the art form it’s going to be a very appealing experience because you can’t ask for better. You have an amazing production,  spectacular sets, costumes and casts. You have singing, acting and dancing and that’s the essence of opera. It incorporates all art forms in it and so whoever is coming to see this production will get a very good taste of what opera is.”

As for the enigma that is Carmen, Shaham is convinced that she is neither victim nor vamp. “She is absolutely in control and in charge of her fate and her life – that’s why I love her so much. She’s very honest, but she is vulnerable – like every human being – she’s not out of a book –  and it’s nice to show that to the audience.”

Singing the roles of Don Jose are Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov and  Adam Diegel, tenor, from Memphis, Tennessee;  Andrew Jones and  James Clayton, both Australian will share the role of Escamillo. Sydney soprano Nicole Car and Tasmanian Sharon Prero will take turns as Micaela.

Joining director Gale Edwards and choreographer Kelley Abbey in the creative team are conductor  Brian Castles-Onion, set designer Brian Thomson, lighting designer John Rayment, costume designer Julie Lynch and site designer Eamon D’Arcy.

Edwards has created a sense of timelessness for this production.  Familiar lettering spelling CARMEN in blood red will glow over the harbour as the street life of Seville unfolds on the stage below,  washed in blood and shadowed by scaffolding.  Just about every icon associated with Andalucia has been used to create the pervasive atmosphere, from the brocade encrusted toreador costumes and swirling capes to gypsy earrings, kiss curls, a great deal of pouting, stamping and darkly smouldering eyes. There are even  references to Hollywood in the production with the entrance of papparazzi and posers, movie stars and starlets in gorgeous frocks.

Going by last year’s experience, the acoustics  won’t disappoint. Carmen promises entertainment for a nightly audience of 3,000, seated at the edge of The Royal Botanic Gardens, free from the conventions of indoor theatre, enjoying an extended interval with a smorgasboard of tapas, paella, a Spanish BBQ and cocktails, all primed for what Edwards describes as ‘a total sensual experience’ .

Quick facts:

  • a gigantic Hollywood style sign in red, spelling Carmen will back the stage,
  • the sign, lit in blood red will be beamed across the harbour from Mrs MacQuarie’s Chair,
  • its letters will measure 13 metres in height high and 25 metres in width,
  • the stage is steeply raked stage measuring 32 x 24 metres,
  • the custom-designed stage resembling a blood stained bull ring will sit over the water.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©


Tickets from $79 – $325. Group discounts available.

Opera Australia: +61 2 9318 8200 / www.operaonsydneyharbour.com.au

Ticketmaster: +61 2 8512 9020 / www.ticketmaster.com.au 

Full cast information at www.operaonsydneyharbour.com.au 


Twitter: @operaonharbour / #harbouropera 

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