Playing “Carmen” around the world, Kirstin Chavez sees many reasons why the Georges Bizet opera remains a masterpiece so fresh and sizzling for every audience and age group.
The Dallas-based mezzo-soprano will join the Long Bay Symphony Chamber Orchestra to help the Carolina Master Chorale close its 30th anniversary season with a “Carmen” concert at 4 p.m. Sunday at Beach Church, just west of Myrtle Beach. She also will headline a Chorale benefit concert at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Trinity Episcopal Church in Myrtle Beach.
Chavezcalled the “Carmen” opera story “very gripping” because it “happens in real time,” unlike arias in other operas with repetitive words and phrases.
“It’s sort of being told from one moment to the next,” she said by phone last month. “Also, the elements of the story are very universal.”
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With so many emotions expressed to which audiences can relate, Chavez finds “thousands of different ways to play them.”
“I never cease to be amazed that when I play ‘Carmen,’ ” she said, “I never play her the same way from one production to the next. ... I sing it differently based on who’s on stage with me. That keeps the story fresh for me.”
For folks who turn out knowing nothing about “Carmen,” they often soon realize, “Wait a minute; I recognize that tune,” Chavez said.
“It’s a piece that musically speaking,” she said, “satisfies so many needs that we have in the music that we listen to. It’s melodious. It has rich harmonies.”
Diverting from the opera’s French words into English won’t ever entertain Chavez, because in its original tongue, “each work is so masterfully married” to the music.
“It was almost like a betrayal for this beautiful opera to put it in a different language,” Chavez said, “because of the music everybody knows and loves.”
‘Different, foreign, exotic’
Dance fulfills another major artery of this opera for Chavez, who brought up its traditional gypsy steps, but that in “modern Western society, it remains somewhat mysterious.”
“It remains something different, foreign and exotic,” she said. “That complements everything.”
Add colorful costumes and the lifestyle in the opera’s setting, along with an orchestra, and Chavez will “challenge anyone to walk out of a good performance of ‘Carmen’ and to not be really moved.” She said the play provides “moments of pure delight” that let audiences “really live with the characters on stage.”
Translating the story and culture of “Carmen” when performing it for other cultures in China, Taiwan and Japan has educated Chavez, a New Mexico native reared in Malaysia. Mindful that outwardly shown affection is not common on the Pacific rim, she said, the core of the story “speaks to them as well.”
“Anywhere I have been to play ‘Carmen,’ audiences have responded virtually the same way,” Chavez said, appreciative, for example, how Japanese people are “drawn to a lot of our Western music, and opera is no exception.”
Remembering the fever and rush after a show, she said “I have never been so sought after as I am in Japan.”
Chavez chuckled when remembering a costume fitting and rehearsal in Japan and the “ooh and ahh” impressions from her female colleagues there, enhanced by the sight of her in a corset, coupled with her genetic characteristics she chalks up in part to her Spanish descent.
“They got very excited, with my physical attributes looking like Carmen,” Chavez said.
Asked if her familiarity with the Carmen role in the past 14 years assists in belting out vocals in other works, and if that enrichment works the other way around, Chavez said, “It’s all a circular sort of thing: One helps the other.”
“I learn something every time I do a show,” she said, “depending on the singing and direction.”
Performing with the Carolina Master Chorale proves another point in how each rendition of “Carmen” gets customized for each group or venue. Chavez said she pours all her energy into the rehearsals in four days leading to the concert. Revisiting Myrtle Beach, she again will team up with longtime friend Tim Koch, the Chorale’s music director and conductor.
“It’s not about, and nor has it ever been, about a vacation,” Chavez said, still grateful that Koch always arranges lodging along the ocean.
‘Gives you everything’
Chavez said seeing “Carmen” anywhere “ought to be on everybody’s list of things to do.”
“It can cleanse your soul, and hopefully, you’ll cry at the end,” she said. “It gives you everything.”
She treats Koch’s interpretation “as a real treat for me.”
Koch first performed with Chavez in the early 1990s as they pursued their respective doctorate and master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He said she sang in three or four choirs and in many performances under his direction, as an ensemble member, soloist or both.
“She is probably the pinnacle example in my personal sphere of one who set sight on a dream and followed it unwaveringly to fruition,” he said.
He lauded her “Carmen” portrayal, among others, as consummate, with elements that he sees separating her “from the other great portrayals I have seen.”
“Kirstin has learned what the greatest artists know, to leave no stone unturned in the development of one’s place in the creation or performance or a major work of art,” Koch said. “For ‘Carmen,’ as I am sure she has done with all of her opera roles, Kirstin has learned and taken ownership of every note, word and nuance, all the history and culture, and every other element that contributes to a truly world-class performance.”