She’s murdered in a fit of rage. It was her fault, you see; she made the mistake of capturing innumerable hearts, breaking one irreparably. She is Carmen, the Sevillan seductress, the bewitching gypsy woman, the singer of “Habanera,” of love and its boundless wilds. She is Carmen, but this is not her story.
“In the story of Carmen, there is no story of real women,” says María Pagés, world-famous flamenco dancer, choreographer, and the creator of Yo, Carmen. “The opera is not about Carmen. There’s no Carmen. It’s the idea of the woman who has all this passion and mystery. The men tell the story.”
The first man to tell Carmen’s story was her creator, French writer Prosper Mérimée, who published the novella Carmen in 1845. Some say that Mérimée was inspired by a story told to him by the Countess of Montijo in the 1830s; whether or not this is mere conjecture, we know for certain that Mérimée was less interested in fleshing out Carmen’s character and more interested in exploiting the mystery of this woman, whose Latin root can mean, among other things, a magic spell. As the story goes, Carmen’s spell is cast on Don Jose, a soldier who leaves his childhood sweetheart and the military to pursue the captivating woman. Her love is too big to be contained by one relationship, though, and Carmen leaves Jose for the handsome bullfighter Escamillo. This costs her her life.
Composer Georges Bizet adapted Mérimée’s work for his four act opera of the same name, which premiered in Paris in March 1875. Bizet died three months later —he’d never know that his opera would receive international fame and acclaim, that Carmen would become the face of the rebel woman, the femme fatale to rule the classic canon of the operatic world. We can only guess at Bizet’s original intentions, what he wanted audiences to take away from the tragic tale of the woman who was too untamed to exist within the confines of society. After years of adaptations and mezzo-sopranos singing “L’amour! L’amour! L’amour! L’amour!,”Pagés is ready for Carmen to tell her own damn story.
Pagés’ Yo, Carmen is a project that has been percolating in the dancer’s soul since she was “a little girl.” Pagés, who grew up in Seville — the sultry and exotic backdrop of Carmen — says that as a Sevillan, “Carmen is a story everybody knows, it’s very popular. It’s something I’ve grown up with all my life. This story is close to me.” And at age 54, Pagés says the timing of the telling is right. “I decided to do Yo, Carmen when I was ready to talk about the real woman. If I were younger I couldn’t say what I can say now. I need to be mature like a woman to say what I say. To try to arrive to the essence of the woman.”
Since she was four years old, Pagés has been honing her flamenco dancing skills. The art of flamenco, also born in Seville, is something that Pagés says is, “very natural … Of course I feel privileged to have this in my life. It’s something I dedicate all my mind and soul to.” Flamenco is comprised of three parts: guitar playing, song, and dance influenced by Latin American, Cuban, and Jewish traditions. Pagés has transformed Bizet’s three hour opera into an hour and a half flamenco dance, with Carmen, played by Pagés, always at the center. “Carmen is a very common name in this town,” says Pagés of Seville, “if you say ‘Carmen!’ lots of women will turn around.”
In this sense, Pagés thinks of her portrayal of the iconic gypsy as a collective interpretation; she’s not just one woman. “Carmen is the symbol of women in general. I think any woman who sees this show can identify.” If the audience does not identify with Pagés as Carmen, then they will undoubtedly connect with one of the other seven dancers on the stage, who move with purpose, faces strained with emotion, feet moving wildly beneath flowing dresses and pliant limbs. Eight musicians play music from Carmen, an aspect of the opera that Pagés knew she wanted to incorporate in her flamenco production, “I like very much the music of the opera. All my life I grew up with the sound of this music … we wanted to include some part of the opera.” The songs are sung in Spanish, but there are also recitations of poems by women from around the world, and these are read in the poet’s native languages, from Japanese to French to English and Spanish. “We like to give the voice to the women, giving the poet her own language,” says Pagés, “To make it more universal.”
In Pagés’ production, which took nearly two years to perfect, the flamenco master dances as if it were her last dance, her entire body quivering with, at first, despair, and then, with the mounting excitement of an untold story finally finding its voice. “In the opera, it’s not Carmen who says what is her life. It’s only the men who say who is this woman. Yo, Carmen says when we are more fragile, more strong. It is about the real woman.”