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"The world's Carmen of choice" ... Rinat Shaham plays Carmen in the Handa Opera.

This is a tale of two Carmens, a cautionary one for aspiring mezzo-sopranos.

If you're short and fiery with curly hair, like Israeli-born Rinat Shaham – ''the world's Carmen of choice'' – you might be forever typecast as the gypsy who rests only when she dies after three-and-a-half hours on stage.

If you're tall, willowy and ''move like a cat'', like Serbian-born Milijana Nikolic, you might have trouble convincing a director to cast you in the role at all.

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Divide and conquer ... Nikolic will alternate with Shaham during performances.

Being Carmen is exhausting and can dislocate your shoulder (Shaham) or plunge you hard down the stairs (Nikolic).

At the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in January, a dancer pulled Shaham hard onto the wagon at the end of act one and, taken backstage, she blacked out. ''It was my fault - I was too wild,'' Shaham laughs from her Manhattan home.

''The theatre were very good with taking care of me but I was the one who insisted going on. I'm tough that way.''

Hearing a few bars of her aria heralding act two, she regained consciousness. ''The pain was just really bad but the good thing is the adrenaline kicked in so I was pretty determined to go on. Pain or no pain, it doesn't matter.''

Playing Carmen at Finland's Savonlinna Festival in 2010, Nikolic recalls meeting her match in a boisterous Russian tenor cast as Don Jose.

''I didn't speak Russian and he didn't speak English,'' says Nikolic. ''We tried to communicate but it was really hard. He was one of those tenors who thought the more realistic it looks, the better it is. We had these big, big stairs and he pushed me so hard down them. I thought 'I'm going to end up in the orchestra pit.' I had a lot of bruises after the performances.''

A frazzled Carmen seems to need a laid-back ''no worries'' Aussie off-stage. In Shaham's case that is Melbourne-born violist and videographer husband Peter Bucknell and in Nikolic's case, Brisbane-born tenor husband Rosario La Spina.

La Spina played Don Jose to Nikolic's Carmen in Opera Australia's last production of the Bizet opera in 2011. ''If I gave him a hard time during the day he would kill me really realistically at the end of the show,'' said Nikolic, in Sydney performing in Il Trovatore for Opera Australia.

As they did in Sydney two years ago, Shaham and Nikolic have divvied up the Carmen gig. There will be 18 performances of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour and the two mezzo-sopranos will alternate performance nights from March 22. Shaham will perform on opening night.

Don Jose will be split among tenors Dmtryo Popov, Adam Diegel and David Corcoran.

French composer Bizet's four-act opera has been a hit with audiences around the world for more than a century, though it was indifferently received when it premiered in Paris in 1875.

This time, on a 32-by-24 metre stage, directed by Gale Edwards and conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, the action is brought forward to mid-20th century Spain.

Set designer Brian Thomson and costume designer Julie Lynch have been inspired by 1950s Hollywood and Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, with unmissable illuminated blood-red letters spelling out Carmen's name.

Both Shaham, born in Haifa in Israel, and Nikolic, born in Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia, say they have put aspects of their own personalities and experiences into their portrayal.

Carmen is a niche both sought but which can also lock you in, as Shaham found. ''It's typecasting but at the same time I'm really enjoying the type and the casting,'' she said. ''I really would love to do other roles, and so I am … doing Carmen is really fantastic but at the same time I do have other abilities and I would really like to explore that.''

Nikolic said: ''She has a point there, because Rinat has curly hair. She's, I don't want to say she's little, but she's not big in stature. She is cast around the world as Carmen because of her looks. Obviously she sings beautifully as well.

''I had a problem at the beginning of my career that no one would cast me as Carmen because they thought I'm too tall. I'm 185 centimetres. Luckily we have other tall singers now as well so I'm very lucky [Opera Australia's] Lyndon Terracini gave me the opportunity. He believes height doesn't matter.''

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Carmen is showing from 22 March -12 April 2013.