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INTERVIEW: Skylark Opera Theatre’s Bob Neu on The Tragedy of Carmen

Tess Altiveros as Carmen in Skylark Opera Theatre’s The Tragedy of Carmen. Photo by Elisabeth.

Skylark Opera Theatre had some rough times in 2016, but the organization has regrouped, rebranded, and relaunched itself. On Friday, its 2017 season formally kicks off with the opening of The Tragedy of Carmen at the Midpointe Event Center in St. Paul. In keeping with the re- theme, this reworked and reimagined version of the classic Bizet opera Carmen strips the work down to its musical and narrative core. The resulting performance is stuffed with 90 minutes of up-close passion and drama. Skylark’s artistic director Bob Neu spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about The Tragedy of Carmen, currents in contemporary opera performance, and more.

Skylark Opera Theatre’s artistic director, Bob Neu.

Where are you in the rehearsal process for The Tragedy of Carmen?

We have the sitzprobe tonight and dress rehearsals on Wednesday and Thursday. Then we’re off and running!

In recent years, Skylark has primarily done weekend-only outings for shows. This show’s run is somewhat different – has anything driven this change?

Skylark used to do 2 weekends each in repertory with 2 pieces [at a time]; in recent years, this has resulted in each production having 4 performances. We’re not doing this production in rep, so we we’re doing the same number of performances [overall], but on consecutive evenings. The time of year – summer versus lovely February – is a huge difference.

It’s not a gigantic difference except for the time of the year.

Has the choice of multiple venues for this season changed the number of performances scheduled or how they’re scheduled? 

This had to do with the changing focus of the company to the chamber aspects of musicals, operas, and operettas – primarily operettas. Because of this, we didn’t even check the schedule at [Skylark’s old artistic home at] the E.M. Pearson Theatre [at Concordia University]. With all due respect to that theatre, we made a conscious change to do this in an alley configuration, with a very long playing space [instead of a proscenium theatre] with audiences on both sides. This was about rethinking how audiences experience the piece, and not any particular setup. The piece is sort of going to dictate the space, as it were.

Tell me about the venue that you’re performing in, the Midpoint Event Center in St. Paul. It’s not a space that was likely to be on people’s radar as a place to see an opera…

Or anything theatrical! It’s a relatively new space…I think it’s new on people’s radars because of that.

It’s a series of warehouses where the owner has reconfigured the space and completely redone them. It has this series of different-sized spaces and rooms that can be used for dance performances because they have these gorgeous sprung wood floors, but the spaces can also be used as party facilities for wedding receptions. There must be 4-5 spaces of different sizes. We looked at all of them and took the one that we thought was the right size for this piece. It’s a blank slate: a very clean, shiny space. It also has a grid for us to install theatrical lighting, and so we were very easily able to just turn the space into what we want to do.

It’s all on the flat – all the seating is folding chairs, temporary, and we can to a certain extent control capacity and have it shrink or get larger as we need. It caps out – we couldn’t do more than 150 legally or comfortably. It’s like a black box, except it’s not black. It literally is an open room.

Our setup is a long rectangle with hopefully no more than two rows of seats on each side. I’m copying this idea from a Macbeth I saw in London in a deconsecrated church where the audience sat in the choir stalls and the players played in the middle. It’s a challenging space because you always have your back to someone, but it makes you engage with the audience. It just seemed the right treatment for The Tragedy of Carmen.  You almost have the players in your lap, literally. There are some moments with fights that may be uncomfortably close – it’ll be safe, but it’ll be right there.

You’re doing back-to-back performances of this opera. In the opera world, you often hear “We can’t do back-to-back performances opera without this piece being doubly cast.” Now, this is The Tragedy of Carmen and not the full-length original opera Carmen, so it’s trimmed down to 90 minutes, and it’s not Wagner. How does this repertoire work with the factors?

It works for the reasons that you said. In the place where we’re performing, you’re not having to ride over an orchestra in a gigantic room and reach an audience of 2,000. It’s a different way of singing.

Some of the people in the cast probably wouldn’t pursue singing some of the roles they doing [in this production] in a gigantic house. They don’t have those kinds of voices – but they’re perfectly suited to this size [of space] and experience.

I think the tenor in this has a very, very big [vocal role]. A lot of his stuff – the flower aria, the duet and the end – it’s a really big thing for the tenor and up there all the time. He and I have talked about making sure that he’s not going full-out this week, since he’s going to be doing three in a row.

With an hour and a half, and all the other factors we talked about, I don’t expect anyone to be vocally exhausted by the end of the evening. I shouldn’t speak for them, but I don’t think they will be! It’s very different from grand opera.

By the tenor, you’re referring to Laurent Kuehnl, your Don José?


This sensitivity to the space is not something that a lot of singers get during their schooling, since they unfortunately don’t usually get the variety of experience singing in different halls that you need.

I think that’s a really good point. I’d like to think that I cast a group of people who I know (along with their other skills) have really good instincts about what it takes to fill a room, what’s oversinging, and what’s not. I haven’t had to talk with them about it – they have instinctually adjusted to the space.

A couple people have said to me, “Gosh, those big opera voices up close, it’s going to blow out their ears,” but no – the simple answer is, “No, it won’t.” These are people who know how to modulate their voices. It hasn’t been an issue…

This room is also very good acoustically. You always get nervous about that before you get in, but it’s all hard surfaces with some fabric. We’ve had no balance problems, which is a real relief.

Tell me a little bit about the selection of The Tragedy of Carmen? There are many versions of the Carmen story and the Carmen opera, dating back to its first revival, when it was going to be done at the Paris Opéra, and they set recitatives instead of spoken dialogue. Things have gone back and forth and there a bazillion different versions of Carmen – why this one?

I was looking for something that would make a strong statement about this particular aesthetic of up close and personal opera. I also wanted to be respectful of the fact that we’ve had a lot of people who’ve been supporters and attendees of Skylark over the years, and who would probably be most welcoming of something that’s from the known repertoire, as opposed to just dropping off to something that’s contemporary and unknown. We’re certainly going to get to that down the road, but not from the very first venture.

The first thing that struck me was, “Here, we have the name recognition and story recognition of Carmen, but in a new treatment that really kind of shows that there are some grand operas (for lack of a better term) that can be distilled into this different aesthetic that we’re putting forward. You still have that music that you love, and the story that you’re intrigued by, and you can examine the story more closely, and maybe get to more of the psychology especially of Carmen, Don José, and Micaela (who I don’t know that any of us really understand).

I’d done the piece a couple years before with Tess Altiveros, who is playing Carmen, and I knew that her performance of this role is really spectacular. It just seemed like all of these things together – something that works on a small scale, where the work has essentially been done, by a director I have tremendous respect for, and someone I knew who would just kill in the lead [i.e, Tess], and confidence that all of the other roles could be cast locally. The rest just all came together.

This telling doesn’t require on incredibly specific settings. It also lends itself to this alley and this kind of very intimate venue because you can tell the story successfully by engaging the imagination, rather than presenting it with giant sets.

There are a couple things that you mentioned there about the intimacy and the space. One of the big turning points in American and international opera was when they rebuilt the Metropolitan Opera House to be larger than any theatre on Broadway that was operating, at 3,800 seats. This has, for better or worse, set most peoples’ ideas of opera as something taking place in a very, very large house and requiring very, very large voices and very, very large and expensive sets. 

Peter Gelb has said a little about growing production budgets and audiences demanding that they be impressed more and more by what they see – the sound, the lighting, robotic sets, etc. – but it sounds like you’re going in the opposite direction.

There’s no question: We are going in the opposite direction. It’s almost, in some ways, a different art form.

It’s not about judging one way or the other as being better or more enjoyable or more valid. What the MetOp does is awesome, and what MN Opera does is awesome, and that’s completely legitimate and there’s a place for that. With opera, it’s somewhat new that there’s this re-examination of text and character development and letting the music and the story be the ones that speak first and foremost.

Musical theatre has already done that – the Chocolate Factory in London has specialized in taking big musicals and bringing them down [in scale]. John Doyle [a Scottish stage director; he won a Tony Award in 2006 for his direction of Sweeney Todd] has done this to a certain extent with Sweeney Todd and [doing] Company on a smaller scale. We’ve seen it in theatre with these massive pieces like Shakespeare, which you can cast with 30 actors or cast with 6 and have people double up and triple up on roles, and just be suggestive about sets and costumes and not literal. It’s opera’s turn – and, again, it’s just one way that one can do this – to take these great masterpieces and boil them down.

Again, it’s not saying that it’s better than a more visual and lush kind of experience, just different.

There’s a saying that everything that happens is a reaction to something else. What is driving your own turn in this direction, either in terms of your career, opportunities that you’re seeing, something that you’re not seeing?

First and foremost for me, when I was named the artistic director about Skylark, it’s about setting the artistic vision for the organization. For me, it was about seeing what the Twin Cities needs.

I don’t think that the Twin Cities need another company doing opera on a big scale – Minnesota Opera does it beautifully [already], so that doesn’t strike me as a need. I don’t think the Twin Cities need another company doing musicals on a grand scale, either – there’s the Broadway [Across America] series, the Guthrie does wonderful work, there are other companies…Bloomington [Civic Theatre, now Artistry], etc… but I’ve been doing this on this smaller scale and I’m really digging it. Really enjoying it.

Those two things kind of converge, but it mostly [comes down to] “What hole needs to be filled in the Twin Cities?” There doesn’t seem to be a lot of chamber opera, operetta, etc. I’m not sure if this company would follow this route if it were in another city, because it depends on what the community needs. This community happens to be so rich that we have to try hard to find what’s needed, what fills a gap. That’s what I’m hoping this aesthetic does here. It’s more about that than what I’m yearning to do personally.

I think any artistic director would say it has to be a bigger vision, not just “What I want to do.”

Oh, I don’t know…I’ve met plenty of artistic directors for whom that’s their big thing. It’s not necessarily bad if they’re the driving energy…

Well, you have to put your heart and soul into it, but it shouldn’t be the only question that you’ve asked.

Let’s talk about this particular production again. Since we’re not doing the reduced Shakespeare thing that you mentioned, with each actor playing multiple characters… With this reduction, what are some of the different notes that this hits? Some of the different editions of Carmen have tried to add elements from the novel, with varying success depending on whether a sister appears or not in the revised storyline…

This doesn’t bring forth any real curves from the traditional version. I think the two unique twists are that Lillas Pasta is a woman in this version, and that she’s more involved in Carmen’s life than in the traditional opera (where he – it’s a guy there) – just appears in the second act and serves drinks. The character’s a bit more prevalent.

I think the biggest twist – the cast is, like, “Wait, what?!?” – is that there’s also a character named Garcia who doesn’t appear in the traditional opera. He makes a brief appearance in the reduced opera, claiming to be Carmen’s husband, which is a surprise. It makes her that much more interesting and puzzling…that she behaves the way she does and you think, “Wait, she has a husband [too]?”

Everyone else’s journey is very similar to the traditional reading, but you have a chance to understand them and their psychology. Again, it’s up close and personal: you really distill the encounters down. I really think this gets at what’s going on with Don Jose: the fact that he’s obsessive and essentially a stalker. He completely loses his way and can’t cope with this rejection after he’s given up family for her, after he’s given up his job for her. In my mind, he’s unhinged from the start.

I think it also helps us make sense of Micaela. She’s very enigmatic – she’s very thinly written, I think [in the original]. This piece doesn’t, per se, give us more clues, but the fact that we’ve had time to look at her and work on her, we’ve been able to add some layers to her that give her more personality. She’s often this simpering ex-girlfriend who sings two stunning aria…but we don’t really get to know what she’s about [normally].

Jennifer Baldwin Peden as Micaela. Photo by Vera Mariner.

Even though it’s things coming out of our imagination, we’ve had a chance to round her out. Plus, it’s also Jennifer Baldwin [Peden], and she [just] rocks. We can explore a lot with her and she’ll find some levels.

When we don’t have to worry about balancing out against the orchestra and singing gigantic B-flats and Bs, it’s a different way of investing your energy as a performer. It’s not more or less valid, but I think you’re just telling a different story. I know that the performers can feel this – that there are certain elements that they can bring out that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to do in a larger performance venue. They’re both valid…it’s a different prism.

Tell me about the casting process. Since this is, as it were, the season of rebirth for Skylark. Often, in such circumstances, things don’t proceed as they might do otherwise – it’s a new thing and you’re trying to launch it off. How did you do the casting for this?

I’d already worked with Tess and thought she was rather singularly extraordinary in this piece. I knew that I really, really wanted to bring her in. There were several other people in town who came to mind who would do a really wonderful job with it [as well], but I have a special relationship with Tess in this role. Everyone else was local.

I’ll be up front and say we didn’t do auditions. I knew that there were very specific vocal needs and skill sets for each person, and I just knew who I wanted. I knew we were going to have a short rehearsal time, and so I wanted people whose work I know and whose work styles I know.

I [also] was mindful that I wanted to use people who had [prior] relationships with Skylark. This might be sentimental, but Skylark was the first big organization in town that hired me as a director. I got to know a lot of singer-actors in town through Skylark through their coming in for auditions and being cast in shows. I wanted to be sure to include some people who I knew were Skylark favorites, for lack of a better term.

I think it’s wise to honor history. Again, it comes down to programming Carmen and making sure that our patrons who’ve been with us for years have their comfort level [met], because it’s important they want to know what they’re getting into. I wanted to put some familiar faces in front.

I don’t want in any way to say something like, “Oh, these were my old friends…” these are all great people for the job.

We do intend to have auditions further out, for other productions coming up. Sometimes as a director, if there’s a difficult role, I do sometimes precast…and most of us are quite honest about that. If you know in advance that you’ve got X role cast, you know darn well that you tell people that up front.

It was a relatively quick casting process, because I had people in mind right from the start and I got them all, which I was very excited about.

I think it’s a lot of people’s dream to have someone call you up and say, “Hey, I want to hire you to do that thing you love and pay you money to do it.

Exactly. I’m a big believer in auditions, too, especially in the Twin Cities, to keep track of the waves of talent that come through. But when you have someone in mind and you know you’re going to cast them, you don’t hold auditions – that just wastes people’s time.

I can tell from looking at your roster that some of these people might not be available, too. A lot of them are clearly going places soon.

Laurent Kuehnl as Don José. Photo by Vera Mariner.

Laurent is a great example for me. I’d previously only worked with him as a member of the chorus for Skylark shows. He went away for school and came back, and he’s grown so much [vocally]. We kind of wanted to celebrate him, since he’s grown up from being a freshman in college as a tenor in the chorus, to now taking on the lead. He’s grown, and he deserves the opportunity, and I’m personally thrilled for him. Could there be a nicer guy?

He’s a sweetheart, but he’s [also] got this crazy fire onstage when he’s called on to do it. He’s pretty demented in this role – I’m really impressed with him! He’s great!

The Baldwin sisters had a long history with Skylark – for which the book is still reading – but tell me about the other members of the cast. Have they all worked with Skylark before?

Kevin Klein, who plays Zuniga and Garcia. Photo by Vera Mariner.

All of them. Jen [Eckes] and I have done everything from her being in the chorus to being a lead in On the Town a few years ago, and we’ve worked together away from Skylark. John [Allen Nelson] has also gone from chorus to second leads – and he went away and has come back, and it’s the time. Kevin [Klein], too…he had a particular look that I was interested in.

When we started rehearsals, we all laughed because five of the six people – everyone who is in town – they all know each other from Skylark. Tess was from out of town, but everyone else was already intertwined.

Coming back to those orchestras that they’re not singing over…what orchestration or instrumentation are you using?

One piano, viola, and cello.

That’s…unusual. Is this a premade arrangement, or one that you made?

It’s a premade arrangement – the piece comes in all kinds of variations of orchestration, including the largest at 15 players. We chose these two [piano and viola] because these two instruments play important parts of the orchestration. There’s a motive that the cello plays throughout that is very important, and the violist opens and closes the piece.

We chose these knowing realizing that they’re both lower-voiced string instruments, and that they’re instruments which blend easily with the keyboard, and are in roughly the same range (of the scale).

To me, it would be very odd to have a clarinet and cello because the ranges are so extreme and one would stick out over the other – it wouldn’t really be cohesive. We thought with the cello and the bass of the piano it would make a more cohesive chamber unit, and add a little more color in the accompaniment.

Given the short rehearsal window, when did you start throwing the full trio into rehearsals?

Tonight. [Laughs] We’re doing a couple hours of just the three musicians and then adding the singers and doing a longish sitz[probe]. Of course, the piece is only 1.5 hours.

It’s interesting: There are big chunks of this orchestration that are just piano, so the idea of doing this in compressed time didn’t seem as overwhelming as I think it would. Ask me tomorrow morning about how that went!

Ultimately, things do come down to butts in seats and tickets sold. The pricing of this show ($25-$29) is in line with theatre companies around the country that are trying to target younger audiences – “30 under 30” and so forth. Were you involved in the strategic decisions to set the pricing?

Yes. The Board discussed it with me and we talked about it in several meetings. It was very much what you said…we purposefully wanted to make the tickets as inexpensive as we financially were able to do. We were not unmindful of this being a new unveiling…it’s a bit of a unique presentation that we weren’t sure people would get. I philosophically believe in being as accessible as you can financially – I think the entire board believes that – and I think there has to be some correlation between the length of the experience and the kind of piece it is. This is being presented in simple terms: the expense is relatively modest, and I think that has too correlate with what the ticket price is.

There were a lot of factors, but I feel good about it. Ultimately, I want people to say, “I want to go to this! This is a reasonably priced ticket, I’m willing to take a chance to get to know what it’s about.”

You’ve talked about the importance of launching points and your vision for Skylark. Do you see the launching point being the next work in the season (Don Giovanni), 2018, or something further down the line?

That’s a good question. Arguably, every production is a new launching point because we’re going to be in new spaces each time and we’re going to do (I hope) everything from tragedies to comedies, and slightly different genres…there’s an operetta I have my eye on that’s very different from Carmen. There’s another chamber opera that’s a really different take on things…

You’re asking a hard question. We don’t have a subscription base [right now]. In time, we might, but the Board and I have talked about this: This one production isn’t going to solidify Skylark Opera Theatre. That develops when people develop trust over years. They’ll only come when they don’t recognize the name when they trust the company. That takes time.

I hope that we have the opportunity to offer a wide variety of things within this certain genre and aesthetic, and that people will take chances to see us, and will eventually come to trust us.

It’s not going to be about doing things in an expected manner. They [the audience] know that they’re not going to come and see Naughty Marietta set in Louisiana in the 17th century with a cast of 25 and an orchestra of 30. If we, for whatever reason, decided to do Marietta, it’ll be in a warehouse with an accordion and four actors. (We’re not going to do that, but that’s the idea of what we would in that situation.)

I read about this production of Oklahoma in upstate New York with 6 actors, in a barn, with picnic tables as the only set, and during intermission they made chili for the audience. I adore that! I didn’t see the production, but that [idea] sounds fascinating to me. That’s the kind of aesthetic that I want to do. It offers unexpected thing!

You probably know On Site Opera in New York – they find the space and then give it a unique treatment. People have to come to respect the company and be willing to take a risk with them, and that takes time. We’re going to do things that I think appeal and that aren’t incredibly esoteric, but it’ll take a while. That’s just reality.

“Incredibly esoteric” – I think that describes a lot of things that I heard in graduate school. 

Not everyone’s going to like every single production that we do, and that’s fine. You can’t hit a home run everytime, even if you’re trying to play it safe. Some things will be failures, because that’s how art works.

The Tragedy of Carmen plays Feb. 10, 11, 17, and 18 at 7:30 pm and Feb. 12 at 2 pm at the Midpointe Event Center in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine