Though it is one of the world’s most popular operas, Georges Bizet’s Carmen wasn’t exactly a raging success during its initial run at Paris’ Opéra-Comique in 1875. Its fate did reverse, driven by the captivating story of a seductive gypsy and the soldier who goes mad for her, and by Bizet’s glorious music. Sadly, the composer was unable to savor his achievement: He died suddenly, after the opera’s 33rd performance.
Today, Carmen is regularly among the top 10 most-produced operas. It has been adapted and interpreted countless times, including director Otto Preminger’s 1954 movie Carmen Jones with Dorothy Dandridge (who became the first black actress nominated for a Best Actress Oscar) and Harry Belafonte.
As the theater world would put it, Carmen is a musical drama with legs.
A luminary from that world, Laramie Project director-playwright Moisés Kaufman, has been at the University of Miami for the past five weeks, working with Grammy Award-winning composer Arturo O’Farrill, choreographer Ronald K. Brown, producer Henry Fonte and a blended cast of professional and student actors to bring a vibrant new version of Carmen to life. Their adaptation will take the stage of the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre on UM’s Coral Gables campus at 8 p.m. Wednesday for a run through Nov. 23.
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This time, Carmen isn’t a Spanish gypsy working in a cigarette factory in 1820 Seville. Kaufman’s imagination and O’Farrill’s skill with Afro-Cuban music have reinvented Carmen as a piece of musical theater set in Cuba in 1958. Now, Carmen practices Santería, works in a cigar factory and smuggles guns to the rebels in the mountains. Her troubled lover Don José is a soldier in Fulgencio Batista’s army. Transformed by O’Farrill, with new lyrics written by Kaufman, Bizet’s familiar melodies have never sounded more Cuban.
Collaborative work is a hallmark of Kaufman’s New York-based Tectonic Theater Project. A month after the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in 1998, project members traveled to Wyoming to conduct the interviews that Kaufman would weave into the script of The Laramie Project, a play seen by millions in the United States and around the world.
Tectonic and Kaufman also work with other companies and artists. Kaufman, for example, will direct actor-playwright Daniel Beaty in The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a play about actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March.
“I had gone on a trip to Cuba about three years ago,” says Kaufman, who grew up in Venezuela but has lived in the United States for more than half his life. “Arturo and I started talking about doing something together, so we’d have monthly lunches where each of us would propose two projects. At our third lunch, I mentioned Carmen, and our eyes lit up.”
Their process began with work on pieces of four songs in Tectonic’s laboratory setting, to figure out whether their concept was viable. Then Kaufman did his research on Cuba and Carmen, learning that Bizet had written Carmen’s famous Habanera after visiting a Latin bar in Paris. He also dug more deeply into the psychology of the opera’s characters.
Though he has directed more plays than musicals, Kaufman feels quite comfortable working on Carmen: “I’m a very musical director, even when I’m directing a drama. I try to find the music in characters.”
How this developmental production of Carmen landed at the University of Miami relates to a more-recent trip to Cuba. Kaufman and UM’s Fonte, who was born in Cuba, met each other on a research trip to the island in March.
“We became friends there, and he mentioned the idea to me,” says Fonte. Fonte brought Tony Award winner Tommy Tune to UM to work on his Studio 54 musical Fifty*Four*Forever and has co-produced four shows with Miami’s Arsht Center since joining the university in 2010. “I said I wanted to develop it, and it has turned into a full co-production, bigger than we thought. There are 11 people from Tectonic here, four Equity actors, Arturo has come back and forth, and Moises has been here full-time.”
Kaufman’s working style, Fonte says, has been enlightening for the many UM students in the cast.
“He has every hope of taking this further. He’s writing every day. And he treats everyone equally,” Fonte says. “Many of the students didn’t know that the director is not the only king in a production. Moises can make things on an actor. He’s not afraid to rewrite, to ‘kill his babies’ [change or delete lines], as we say. He’s very open. That comes from all the devised work he does with his own company.”
At UM, Christina Sajous is starring as Carmen opposite Peter Saide as Don José. Sajous’ Broadway credits include Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, Baby It’s You! and American Idiot. Saide, a classically trained singer, has done everything from Jersey Boys to Into the Woods. Both actors say they have loved working with Kaufman and are enjoying acting alongside — and mentoring — the student performers.
“I studied Moises’ work in college because of The Laramie Project. And I’ve seen Carmen Jones many times. That changed the game for black actors,” says Sajous, who is Haitian American. “We’ve been talking a lot about history in the rehearsal space, trying to pick apart the racial conflicts and class structure. ... I love the fact that Moises is respecting the story of Carmen. In this, there’s something empowering about her. She’s a very strong black woman.”
Saide, an actor whose heritage is Lebanese-Australian, says with a laugh that he is a little amazed to find himself playing a Cuban in Miami, but he’s savoring the experience.
“This process with Moises is completely unique. We’re creating the piece together,” he says. “The students are fantastic and fearless. Working with a playwright as noteworthy and experienced as Moises is, they keep their eyes and ears open.”
Sophomore Gabby Mancuso says she feels she hit the “educational jackpot” when she was cast as Don José’s hometown girlfriend Micaela in Carmen, which will be her first UM show. The director and professional actors have encouraged the students to take risks, be fearless; Sajous, Mancuso says with a smile, will often say, “Let’s do it strong and wrong!”
“Moises has just been spectacular. He knows how to talk to an actor. We were scared, but he creates a safe environment. Working with him has been such an eye opener to the real [performing] world,” Mancuso says.
At UM, the Kaufman-O’Farrill Carmen will be a learning experience, and not just for the students. The creators will discover what works and what doesn’t, then move on to do a production at a major regional theater and, they hope, Broadway.
His experience at UM, Kaufman says, has been gratifying and personally rewarding.
“Carmen has virtuosic requirements. The kids are wonderful singers, dancers and actors. Henry has really created a conservatory that finds triple threats,” he says.
Then he adds, “Being in Miami really feeds my Latin-ness.”
If you go
What: ‘Carmen,’ with book and lyrics by Moisés Kaufman, Georges Bizet music adapted by Arturo O’Farrill.
Where: Jerry Herman Ring Theatre at the University of Miami, 1312 Miller Dr., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through Nov. 23.
Cost: $25 ($10 students).
Information: 305-284-3355 or https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1871.