Depth Becomes Her in Knoxville Opera’s ‘Carmen’

Knoxville Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen
Conductor and musical director: Brian Salesky; Stage director: Chuck Hudson

With Audrey Babcock as Carmen, Brian Cheney as Don José, Ryan Kuster as Escamillo, and Zulimar López-Hernández as Micaëla.
Friday, February 13, 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 15, 2:30 p.m.
Tennessee Theatre, 604 S. Gay Street, downtown Knoxville
Tickets: or telephone 865.524.0795

Audrey Babcock and Brian Cheney in Knoxville Opera's 'Carmen'

Audrey Babcock and Brian Cheney in Knoxville Opera’s ‘Carmen’

Georges Bizet died but three months after the premiere of his opera Carmen, and so, never enjoyed even a hint of the love, admiration, and longevity that the work has enjoyed ever since. In fact, the premiere of Carmen at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875, was a huge critical disaster. The score, which to modern ears is as evocative and tuneful as it gets, was lambasted for being uncomfortably modern, and without melody or charm. The libretto was labeled as obscene and immoral, lacking even rudimentary theatricality. Thankfully, given time, audiences and critics reversed course, changed their minds, and took to Bizet’s masterpiece of melodic invention and orchestration. Within a decade, it had been revived to a miraculously positive reception in Paris.

This initial dislike was testament to the fickleness of late 19th Century theatrical tastes. While European theatre was awash with productions guided by the current ideas of dramatic realism, this was a stylistic trend undergoing substantial evolution. Carmen, too, challenged the idea of what type of work could be considered opera comique; a tragic heroine that defies conventional behavior among smugglers, gypsies, and factory girls just did not sit well with the Parisian crowd of 1875.

Bizet’s librettists were Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who adapted Prosper Merimée’s novella of the same name from 1845. The story is set in Seville where Carmen, a gypsy factory girl allied with smugglers, seduces an army corporal, Don José, convincing him to leave the army and his fiancé and turn to crime. Their incompatibility weighs the relationship down and Carmen leaves him in favor of a handsome toreador, Escamillo. A final confrontation outside the bullring where Escamillo is performing leads to the inevitable tragic conclusion.

What makes the score for Carmen so compelling is Bizet’s attention to details of character and environment. The composer’s equal musical weight to peripheral characters and crowds/choruses, as well as to the main characters, creates the dramatic cloth that carries the narrative along so successfully.

One such character is that of the fiancé, Micaëla, a peasant girl from Don José’s village, who is given a pivotal role in the storyline. In Act III, Micaëla has followed Carmen, Don José, and the smugglers to their mountain hideout, where she attempts to get José to visit his mother, who is dying. Her aria here, “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante”, is an integral facet of Bizet’s painting of the character.

Soprano Zuilimar Lopez-Hernandez, Micaela in Knoxville Opera's 'Carmen'

Soprano Zuilimar Lopez-Hernandez

In next weekend’s Knoxville Opera production of Carmen, the role of Micaëla is being sung by soprano Zulimar López-Hernández, who was last seen and heard here in 2012 as Juliette in Roméo et Juliette. A native of Puerto Rico, López-Hernández found her vocal career a bit later than most—in college while studying to become a nutritionist—but has since explored with success the niche of lyric sopranos blessed with lightness, energy, and strength. Among the roles she has commanded are Despina in Così Fan Tutte, Norina in Don Pasquale , Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro), and Musetta (La Bohème).

Describing her approach to Micaëla, she offered “I have a thing about redeeming my ladies, finding the true drive in them, whether it’s like Zerlina in Don Giovanni, or Micaëla in Carmen. What could be the motive of this lady to risk her life, to make a huge sacrifice, for the love of this guy, Don Jose?”

The answer to that question seems to be key to her Micaëla.

“I can say that she is way stronger than the performances I have seen before on stage. It’s one thing watching the opera, it’s another thing doing it. What excites me about the role is going deep into her visceral emotions, what triggers her, what drives her.”

And then, there’s that aria in Act III.

“Micaëla is totally scared and all alone, following the [smugglers]. And then, Bizet wrote an amazing aria for her. It’s not just pretty music and pretty sound, it’s the depth of the words…I never saw the true depth of the character until I started working on it. That’s the beauty of what we do, we discover so many layers in the character…it’s a joy to sing Micaëla.”