For today’s up-and-coming opera performers, it’s not enough to just stand and sing on-stage anymore. These days, you have to possess not only heaven-sent vocal powers, but also the ability to act and move around the stage. In other words, you have to be a triple threat. And perhaps no role demands more of that multitasking than the fiery Gypsy title character in Georges Bizet’s Carmen.
That’s definitely what young mezzo-sopranos Francesca Corrado and Emma Parkinson are finding as they alternate the famous role in the new UBC Opera production.
“We have to bring everything together at one point: castanets, dancing, singing, acting, all at the same time,” reveals Corrado, a master’s student in UBC’s opera program, speaking to the Straight over the phone from the school’s costume shop. “I have to focus on Don José, on the conductor, and the staging, too—but you have to make it all look easy.
“It used to be what we call ‘park and bark’: people used to be able to stand on-stage and not do much else,” Corrado adds. “But at UBC now we get language training, movement coaching, acting… We’re so well-prepared for the real world because of all these experiences.”
It’s a new reality that today’s young diva wannabes are ready to embrace.
“More and more people are wanting a triple threat: someone who can act and move and sing almost equally—although of course your voice in opera is first and foremost,” explains Parkinson, who is coming to the show after master’s training at McGill University and a stint at the Atelier Lyrique of the Opéra de Montréal, talking to the Straight on a break at her Vancouver home. “And any time you can say, ‘Yes, I’m willing to do that or learn that,’ the better. It’s challenging for us as a performer but we have to grow and evolve with the art form—and it’s great to have these extra skills.”
Both of these Carmens came to opera from choir work during high school—but with little knowledge of the music back then. “If it wasn’t for my high-school choir teacher suggesting it, I wouldn’t be here,” reveals the Burnaby-raised Corrado. As for the Alberta-born Parkinson, her introduction to opera came at 17, when she was encouraged to audition for an advanced vocal workshop at UBC. “My parents have very eclectic musical taste, but honestly I wasn’t a huge fan growing up, so it was a turning point for me to experience it firsthand, in all the emotion,” she says. “I had come from a choral background for most of my life, but also a theatre background—so the combination of singing and dramatics married together really appealed to me.”
For a mezzo-soprano, Carmen is one of the biggest roles, and often a singer will have to wait till well into her career, often into her late 30s or 40s, to take on the complex, ruffle-flipping vixen. So the UBC show is a unique chance for Corrado and Parkinson to show their stuff—under the expert guidance of director Nancy Hermiston, maestro Leslie Dala, and members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra. Corrado and Parkinson say one challenge is in showing the human qualities of the seductress who overthrows a lovelorn Don José for a sexy matador. And then there are the massive vocal demands.
“So much stamina is required—especially in Act 2, when we step out and literally don’t leave the stage till the end, and basically don’t stop singing the whole time,” Parkinson comments. “You need to really pace yourself and save yourself to make it to the end. So it’s good that we have a lot of support on this show. There’s a reduced-size orchestra, which is good for us, so we don’t overpush our voices.”
The other opportunity this Carmen offers the emerging opera singers is the chance to travel with it to the Westben Arts Festival in Ontario and then immediately over to Teplice, Czech Republic, opposite a different Don José for each run. As Corrado puts it, “I get three men this summer.” Spoken like a true Carmen.
UBC Opera’s Carmen is at UBC Old Auditorium on Saturday and Sunday (June 22 and 23) and from June 27 to 30.