Music to one's ears is subjective. To some, the soaring arias of a classic opera are intoxicating. To others, the mechanical melody of a racetrack abuzz with cars has a similar effect on the senses.
The New York State Fairgrounds provided a venue for both sounds last month as Syracuse Opera took up residence preparing for "Carmen" as the Super DIRT championship race raged outside.
The Syracuse Opera will open its 2006-2007 season Friday with "Carmen," Georges Bizet's masterpiece, in the Crouse-Hinds Theater at the John H. Mulroy Civic Center.
Rehearsals began in the fairgrounds' youth building nearly four weeks ago, with set pieces arranged before murals of grazing cows and a banner reading "Let the Journey Begin with 4-H." With coats pulled tightly around them, members of the opera chorus sang in the chill of the cavernous space, their voices bouncing off the concrete floor.
Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah created some much-needed heat with a sultry, passionate rendition of Carmen's signature aria, "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle," better known as "Habanera." Nesrallah swaggered and tossed her wild hair as she sang to the chorus, which responded energetically during the refrain. In high heels, fishnet stockings and a brown trench coat over her costume, Nesrallah was coy, sexy and convincingly Carmen - and that was just the first rehearsal.
This tune, along with the "Toreador's Song," is among the most recognizable in all of
opera. Even people who aren't familiar with the genre might recognize these melodies from soundtracks, commercials and even cell phone ringtones.
Syracuse Opera artistic director Richard McKee kept Carmen's widespread appeal in mind when planning this season's productions.
"This is kind of the hook for the season," McKee said. "We always try to have what we call a 'top 10' opera that we hope has an attraction beyond the usual opera audience."
Bizet's "Carmen" has long had a place in the canon of opera classics. Set in the early 19th century in Seville, Spain, the plot revolves around the gypsy Carmen, a free-spirited femme fatale, and her seductive exploits. Don Jose, a soldier, is one of the many men whom Carmen ensnares, an affair that proves fatal in the end.
Although he has been directing operas for nearly 20 years, McKee has staged "Carmen" only once before, a somewhat surprising revelation, given the popularity of Bizet's masterpiece and McKee's personal fondness for it.
But his first experience with "Carmen" from the director's chair was, McKee said, "not a good experience." On top of having to work with a chorus and an orchestra unfamiliar with the demands of an opera production, McKee faced every director's nightmare: his leading lady was a diva.
This time around, McKee is excited to have another go at "Carmen" with his Syracuse company. He's looking forward to working with his own chorus, and he has assembled a strong group of leads, both newcomers and familiar faces, from Central New York and beyond.
Nesrallah makes her debut with Syracuse Opera as the opera's protagonist. For Nesrallah, as for many a mezzo-soprano, Carmen is a dream role. She first played the part in 2003 with the Saskatoon Opera in Saskatchewan, Canada.
"It felt so natural and so, this was the role that I was meant to play," Nesrallah said. Instead of feeling pressured to succeed, Nesrallah said she was relieved when she finally had the chance to portray Carmen. "When it's something you've been waiting your whole life to do and you get onstage and you have that comfort, then you know your instinct has been correct."
Nesrallah's debut engagement with Syracuse Opera marks her fourth turn as the Spanish seductress. The best part of returning to a role like Carmen, Nesrallah said, is that each time you find more depth to the character; "The treasure never runs out."
Tenor Drew Slatton, most recently seen in Syracuse Opera's "Tosca" and "Macbeth," returns as Don Jose, the soldier tormented by his feelings for Carmen. Slatton believes he has sung Don Jose nine or 10 times in his career; it's one of the roles for which he is most frequently engaged.
"There's a lot going on in this poor man's head," Slatton said. "(Don) Jose is very interesting because he's very imbalanced, and he has a lot of psychological torment, some of which is not mentioned in the opera." Like the other principals in the cast, Slatton has read Prosper Merimee's 1845 novella from which the opera derives to gain further insight into his complex character.
And what opera would be complete without a love triangle? Soprano Donita Volkwijn, from Cape Town, South Africa, makes her Syracuse Opera debut as Micaela, a young girl from Don Jose's hometown who also happens to be in love with him.
Though they met for the first time not long ago, Nesrallah, Slatton and Volkwijn already have a rapport, onstage and off.
"We just met Sunday, and we've known each other 20 years," Slatton quipped.
But it's not just a collegial dynamic among performers that leads to a successful production. These singers contend that great art is a result of discussion and participation, evident in the Syracuse Opera.
"It doesn't happen a whole lot that we're allowed to have input into the characters we're creating," Volkwijn said. "In opera today it's a choice between a two-dimensional character or a caricature. Being able to discuss with everyone involved is quite a luxury."