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Passions Run High In San Diego Opera’s ‘Carmen’

Go behind the scenes with the fight choreographer

Photo credit: J. Kat Woronowicz

Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson sings the title role of Bizet's "Carmen" at San Diego Opera.

Georges Bizet’s "Carmen" looks to a fiery gypsy woman and the men who fall under her spell. San Diego Opera’s production heightens the passions of the story with its fight choreography.

For most people opera is about music and the breathtaking beauty of the human voice. But for Erick Wolfe it’s about the body count.

"It's just there's more violence in opera than in any other medium per capita," said Wolfe, "Carmen's" fight choreographer. "I mean almost at every opera somebody dies, gets stabbed, gets killed, commits suicide or dies of a broken heart."

And it’s operas like "Carmen" that keep Wolfe employed.

Bizet’s passionate tale of a fiery temptress and her jealous lovers provides Wolfe with ample opportunity to work with his favorite weapon.

"The knife is my favorite weapon to choreograph with because it's close, it's intimate, and the knife is the weapon of opera," Wolfe stated. "I think everybody either gets stabbed or stabs somebody in opera with a knife at one point or another."

That’s definitely the case with Carmen. But the challenge for a fight director in opera is that you can’t use stunt doubles or ask for a retake. For San Diego Opera’s "Carmen," Wolfe had just days to work out fight choreography for the show.

"First I worked with the actors or singers to get a feel for their physicality and then I create the choreography around them," Wolfe said. "We build up slow so that they get a body awareness and muscle memory with the fight and constantly focusing on the story that we're trying to tell within the fight because of a fight doesn't serve the story, then we really shouldn't be fighting."

The fight between Don Jose, a soldier, and Escamillo, a toreador, reveals who they are as characters.

"Don Jose is going to be much more brutal, much more emotionally involved," said Robert Watson, the tenor playing Don Jose at San Diego Opera. "Whereas Escamillo going to be more measured, much quicker, more skilled because that's what he does for a living. He literally fights for a living. I do [too] but in a brutal, get the job done way."

Ginger Costa-Jackson plays Carmen to Watson’s Don Jose. She pointed out that Wolfe puts safety first in designing the fights.

"So we rehearse things very slowly and then bring it up to speed," Costa-Jackson explained. "And then before doing the scene we actually have a fight call so we can slowly go through the bumps and be like, OK, we're safe, we know where the slaps are happening and hair pulls because sometimes adrenaline hits and you can go a little too far, but he always makes sure that we're safe."

Safe and still able to sing.

"We don’t try to create the coolest fight ever," Wolfe said. "I mean if they didn't have to sing or really worry much about breathing afterwards, and they could just take a break then I could do a fantastic fight. But a lot of times even the person who dies still has to sing for a little bit after a fight."

Photo credit: J. Kat Woronowicz

Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson is Carmen and tenor Robert Watson is Don Jose in San Diego Opera's "Carmen."

Carmen has her big fight at the end of the show.

"It’s very aggressive," Costa-Johnson pointed out. "I mean, at the end of the day, this is a murder and Carmen is being murdered because she tells Don Jose, no. I guess the main point we wanted to make and what we wanted to talk about with that final violence and with the murder is that she dies because she tells him no."

Bizet’s music is the heartbeat driving the emotions of the story.

"Bizet is a complete genius," Costa-Johnson said. "He gives it all to you in the music. The sensuality, the anger, the passion, the remorse …"

And even the fights.

"(The music) informs the intensity of the fight. When I fight it's very intense driving music," Watson said. "So it's going to inform the desperateness of the character with Don Jose. You can really feel what the characters are feeling because it is punctuated by that music."

Photo credit: J. Kat Woronowicz

Bass Scott Conner is Escamillo and mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson is Carmen in San Diego Opera's "Carmen."

Wolfe hopes that audiences will appreciate the stage magic that goes into creating what is sometimes just a few seconds of action.

"I love that moment when the audience goes 'ahhhh,' and they have that collective inhale of, 'Oh my God.' And they're right there with the story. They're believing it. They're buying into it. They know it's fake. They know the performers are not really fighting, but they buy into that sense and they just go for the ride. And that's my favorite part," Wolfe said.

And when the fights break out onstage this weekend, Wolfe will be watching the audience and hoping that this "Carmen" will grab them and make an impact.

"Carmen" begins performances this Saturday, March 30 and runs through April 7 at the Civic Theatre.

Georges Bizet’s "Carmen" looks to a fiery gypsy woman and the men who fall under her spell. San Diego Opera’s production heightens the passions of the story with its fight choreography.

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