The gypsy spirit

Georges Bizet's passionate opera Carmen makes soprano Angela Hogan do some serious soul-searching, Ron Cerabona writes

Playing the title role in Georges Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen is a dream come true for Angela Hogan. Although she's sung excerpts in a concert version before, this is her first time performing the entire role in a fully staged version, produced by Melbourne Opera and coming to the Canberra Theatre for one night only.

''It's my favourite opera,'' she says. ''It's absolutely beautiful.''

Carmen is one of the most performed of all operas and a lot of its music - including the Habanera and the March of the Toreadors, just to name two numbers - is known well beyond the opera house. Oscar Hammerstein II reworked the score into the 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones, a success in itself, but the original work remains a classic. This production will be sung in English.

Asked to explain the enduring appeal of the work, Hogan says, ''I think it's because of the tunes - they're extraordinary, very passionate.''

In the opera, set in Spain, the free-spirited gypsy Carmen seduces Don Jose (Jason Wasley), a soldier charged with taking her to prison, into running away with her, but she eventually abandons him for the bullfighter Escamillo (Phillip Calcagno) with fatal consequences.

''I've worked with Phil before on La Boheme; he was Marcello. This is my first time with Jase … they're amazing men to work with; there's a lot of energy on stage.''


The production was directed by Hugh Halliday and is being conducted by Greg Hocking.

Joining members of the Melbourne Opera Chorus and Orchestra will be some of Canberra's own performers and Hogan remembers working with them here on a previous tour, in La Boheme in 2008.

''They were pretty damn good,'' she says.

Having loved the opera so long, Hogan has had time to think about the complexities of her character. She says that in addition to discussing the opera with the director and fellow singers she has written her own notes about Carmen.

''Something has made her into the gypsy she is with the free love idea; she's fickle with men.''

She thinks Carmen was probably born into the gypsy life and has a core of inner strength, but that she has been ''broken and put back together'' by her past.

''She's built her own life and relied on nobody but herself and these experiences have made her a really strong woman.

''It's all about the layers.''

Carmen is fiercely honest about her attitudes towards love and entirely selfish in her behaviour and Hogan likes delving into the possibilities that made the character the way she is.

''Something needs to have been done to her by somebody … she's been hurt before,'' Hogan says.

''Being a gypsy is her life: she wants to be free and not pinned down.''

But even she believes in the power of fate.

Running away with Carmen is hard for Jose, a man of honour, she says, and exposes his weakness for her.

''Love makes people into a different person.''

While she's not going to tarot readings or joining a gypsy caravan, Hogan does believe it's important to delve into herself when performing a role like this. A lot of this character preparation won't be visible on stage, but deeply considering all this subtext helps her bring the drama to life.

''It's easy just to jump on stage and act and it's difficult to pull something from the inside and deliver it, but I think that's the honest way, of exposing yourself,'' Hogan says.

In the past she's played both light roles - Musetta in Puccini's La Boheme and Valencienne in Lehar's The Merry Widow - and dramatic ones, such as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and says Dido was ''another character that took a lot of soul-searching to be able to play it in a true fashion''.

Hogan, 30, was born in Bendigo, one of seven children in a family with a heavy musical bent.

''We all learned the piano and the guitar,'' she says. They also spent time together on camping trips singing harmonies. It sounds a little reminiscent of The Sound of Music's von Trapp family. Hogan says, ''We've been called that before.''

But Hogan pursued music more seriously. She studied it up to her final year of school and performed in amateur musicals, including Les Miserables and Chicago, and sang in bands for a while. But something was missing.

She realised that although she had little experience of it, her passion was for opera, ''using your body as a vessel for someone else's art as opposed to creating your own''.

She says, ''I love the feeling of singing opera, it's like singing velvet, it's a beautiful kind of thing physically to be involved in and I never found that in musicals or in band work.''

At the age of 23 she auditioned successfully for the Victorian College of the Arts and confirmed her new-found love of opera right from the start. She graduated in 2007 and began working. Besides the roles mentioned, her credits include Mozart's Il Re Pastor and the Spanish zarzuelas Bohemios and La Verbena de la Palona.

Later in the year she will be singing excerpts from Carmen, among other operas, in a touring concert in China and says she enjoys that style of performing too.

''You get a taste of everything, indulging in each different part, whereas in opera you're a character and are dealing with it over that period of time; you can concentrate on that character and her traits and what she's about.''

She likes singing in Italian and Spanish - ''very pure vowels'' - and doesn't mind German and French, but says Russian and Czech are more of a challenge: ''a lot of consonants and not many vowels''.

And being a native English speaker she's most confident about capturing the nuances in that language. Although she prefers to sing in the original language where possible, she says that when there are no surtitles, as in this tour, singing in English helps with immediacy of communication provided the translation is deft.

She recalls performing in Britten's English-language A Midsummer Night's Dream while at the VCA with conductor Stephen Mould from Opera Australia.

''That was very special.''

She's not very fond of many modern operas with their ''very discordant'' music: ''I don't think they have that big resolution musically.''

Although Carmen is her favourite she also likes the operas of Puccini and, in particular, Verdi, such as La Traviata and Il Trovatore.

She hasn't had the opportunity to sing lead roles in those operas yet, but, she says, ''One day, I hope.''

The role of Carmen is written for a mezzo-soprano voice, but it has been performed by sopranos and Hogan, a soprano herself, says, ''I feel very lucky to get to do it.''

She says it requires a heavy lower range which she may have cultivated in her years of rock band work.

''Maybe it all happened for a reason.''

Carmen is on at the Canberra Theatre on Saturday, May 12, at 7.30pm. Tickets $25-$89. Bookings: 6275 2700 or www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au