Adelaide will see three different productions of Carmen in March alone, but María Pagés’ WOMADelaide production is by far the most personal.
Bizet’s Carmen is among the more enduring and malleable of all operas. Melodies like Habanera and the Toreador Song are instantly recognisable worldwide and various productions have transformed it into a ballet, a musical set in North Carolina during World War II and a ‘hip hopera’ featuring Beyoncé.
Pagés, widely considered the greatest living exponent of flamenco dancing, grew up in Seville where the original story of obsessive love and jealousy is set.
“I grew up with this music,” she recalls, “but later I was more interested in the story and the novel. And when I grew to be a woman, I understood there’s something wrong with this story from the point of view of the woman.” Prosper Mérimée’s novella, on which the opera’s libretto is based, differs in a few aspects but the substance is similar: A soldier falls in love with a cigar factory worker, fighting her other suitors and throwing his career away to follow her. As she tires of him, he grows increasingly jealous and kills her in a destructive rage.
Though the story bears Carmen’s name, it is to all intents and purposes the story of Don José. It chronicles his actions and motivations, describing the toxic masculinity that destroys everything in his orbit and her fate is explored only insofar as it affects him.
For Pagés, it is the story of “a man who has problems finding the ideal woman, so he invents a woman.” After growing up surrounded by the story from a young age, she decided to change it, “to work with a reflection of this story, in particular to try to give a voice to the women.”
But Yo, Carmen is not simply a revisionist version of the tale told from her perspective in the vein of Wicked. The title (which simply translates to “I, Carmen”) uses Carmen as a universal title. As Pagés says, “I is a collective idea of all the women so in our show, we don’t talk about the male roles of Carmen or the female roles, we talk about all the women… we talk about our mother, our daughters, our friends.”
Pagés has friends and relatives named Carmen, and this production reclaims the name for them, as well as reclaiming the character from the male imagination. But it does more than that – it tells their stories, and the stories of countless women around the world who have gone unheard because of the men who surround them.
Working with El Arbi El Harti (her partner “in creativity and life”), she created a work that fuses Bizet’s music with other sources and adds dance and poetry. The live musicians come from both classical and flamenco backgrounds, and as the production has toured they have learned from each tradition – Pagés says with delight that “now our violin player plays without score and our singers can read music.”
Her dancing and choreography are so expressive that Nobel Prize winning author José Saramago said that “neither the sky nor the earth rest unchanged after María Pagés has danced.” But for Pagés herself, dance alone was not enough to tell this story. She wanted to give a voice to women around the world and in Yo, Carmen does that literally with works from female poets in a range of languages including English (Margaret Atwood), French (Marguerite Yourcenar), Arabic (Widad Benmoussa), Japanese (Akiko Yosano) and Spanish (Maria Zambrano). She talks about the rhythm of poetry as a kind of music and the choreography “is influenced by the language in which the poet writes.”
Onstage, Pagés will be joined by seven other Carmens to give this poetry a living form. They are women with jobs, families, ambitions and fears whose stories are not often shared. There have been many versions of Carmen, set around the world and across time. Yo, Carmen is the story of all of them.
Yo, Carmen, presented by The Adelaide Review
Friday, March 8 to Monday, March 11