Philly’s new production of ‘Carmen’ is worthy of binge-watching

A successful step forward in Opera Philadelphia’s quest to attract millennials.

carmen
Opera Philadelphia
monicazorrilla

You could binge-watch all 193 minutes of Carmen and still long for the second season.

Frenchman George Bizet wasn’t catering to the Hulu generation when he completed the opera back in 1874. (Evidence: there actually isn’t a sequel.) But the 35-year-old composer knew what the youth of his era wanted to see, and he catered to them, filling the stage with smoking, sex, insubordination and scandal.

Currently, all this passion comes pulsing back to life each evening at the Academy of Music, in Opera Philadelphia’s new production of the semi-Sevillan tale. And millennial audiences are apparently loving it.

“People recognize the music — the Habanera and the Toreador Song are iconic,” said David B. Devan, Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president. “But they need more than just the music. They want something vivid, they want something character-focused, and they want to see a heightened reality… Kind of like on Netflix.”

Vividness is in great supply in this unorthodox update of Bizet’s famed masterpiece.

Directed by Scottsman Paul Curran, the Opera Philadelphia show features backdrops full of vibrant graffiti and a cast in chic, 1960s-inspired costumes. That’s very much intended to attract a younger crowd.

Carmen is a good on-ramp for people who need to get ‘on the highway of opera,'” Devan said.

How does he know what appeals to the target 18- to 30-year-old theatergoer? “Loads of focus groups and market research.”

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Costume designs by Gary McCann

Way before this particular run, which opened April 27 and continues through May 6, Devan and his team were intensely strategizing their promotion game.

Over the past five years, they’ve been tweaking ways to captivate a younger audience — people to whom the thought of attending opera instigates little more than a yawn.

One example: use of illustration in marketing materials.

Research showed photography scoring poorly among the target demographic, while dynamic graphic design — rich in color, flat and highly stylized— was seen as trendy.

Hence, the vivacious paper-doll-like designs and animations in the promo materials by artists at Karma Agency. Their stylized Carmen happens to look almost exactly like the actor who plays Carmen on stage, Argentinean mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack.

Casting was another area where Devan & Co. incorporated research into their production.

“Millennials like the look and the feel of a set and a cast that are convincing and relatable,” he said, explaining that translated into hiring actors in the same age range as the characters they are embodying.

Moldovan baritone Adrian Timpau, who plays the cocky Escamillo, is 32. Tenor and Curtis Institute of Music graduate Evan LeRoy Johnson, playing the role of mama’s boy Don José, is only 25. Many cast members are local. Some are former students at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Academy of Vocal Arts, and others are current members of the Philadelphia Boys Choir or Philadelphia Girls Choir.

Another gesture toward making the show accessible: cost.

Tickets are being offered at eight different price-points ranging from $20 to $225. There are some special offers, such as student rush tickets, but no “deep-discounts.”

“If there’s a band you’re dying to see or a piece of clothing that you just have to have,” Devan said, “you’re gonna find the money.

A night at the opening of Carmen provided evidence that the company’s efforts are succeeding.

Seated in the Academy’s intimate auditorium were little girls in patent leather shoes and elderly men in velvet coattails, while many of the rows were packed with young adults and thirtysomethings, all eagerly anticipating the same production.

When the curtain rose for the first act (which is followed by four more acts, two intermissions and one pause), the audience was immediately enthralled. It wasn’t just about the music — though the instrumentals conducted by Yves Abel were riveting, and the French pronunciations were on point — but about the overall, all-encompassing energy throughout the show, both on-stage and off.

Even with this new format, the main narrative remains the same. And the 143-year-old opera about a feisty, rebellious “gypsy child” who gets trapped in a dangerous, saucy love triangle, proved its staying power.

 

 

 

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