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'Carmen': Opera Pacifica brings a rare opportunity, and a beautiful story, to SJCT

Jenny Knapp and Robert Corl perform  the lead roles in ‘Carmen,’ Oct. 24-25 at San Juan Community Theatre.  - Opera Pacifica
Jenny Knapp and Robert Corl perform the lead roles in ‘Carmen,’ Oct. 24-25 at San Juan Community Theatre.
— image credit: Opera Pacifica

Since Georges Bizet's "Carmen" premiered in 1875, the comic opera and its music ("Les Toreadors," "Habanera") have become immortalized on stage and in film. Hard to infuse something unique into such a classic, particularly after so many film adaptations (the 1983 film directed by Carlos Saura was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and Beyonce Knowles starred in an MTV "hip hopera" version in 2001).

And yet, Opera Pacifica's "Carmen" — Oct. 24 and 25 at the San Juan Community Theatre — will have its own unique flair.

It's the first major opera production here since the San Francisco Opera Center's production of "Die Fledermaus" in 1993. And in the intimate setting of 285-seat San Juan Community Theatre, every seat is a good seat.

In the lead role is noted Northwest mezzo-soprano Jenny Knapp, whose career has ranged from "The Messiah" and "The Marriage of Figaro" to "The Healing Heart of the First People of this Land," a Coast Salish symphony for which she learned phrases in Lushootseed.

Among the beauty and brilliance of soaring voices will be Andy Urbach of Friday Harbor, a supernumerary in the 1991 Los Angeles Music Center production of "Carmen" starring Placido Domingo. Adding to the diversity of talent: Urbach’s wife, Jill, a Screen Actors Guild member and veteran of TV ("Weird Science") and the local stage; and Nick Zervas, an accomplished tenor who returned to perform in the Northwest after graduating from the American Music and Drama Academy in New York City.

Other local talent in the chorus: Joey Adams, Patty Bair, Farhad Ghatan, Joanne Lally, Roberta Leed, and Diana Stepita. In the Coro di monelli, or chorus of ragamuffins: Zoe Kromer, Jolie Loucks, Mark Mazzarella, Matt Stepita, Joe Stewart, Sam Stewart, Simon Vincent, and Grace Willow.

Gracing the stage will be dancer Michelle Mullin of Friday Harbor, in her third year at Cornish College of the Arts.

The Olympia Chamber Orchestra will perform from the SJCT orchestra pit, a rare unveiling, and will include local cellist Sally Browne; pianist Stella Joh; and violinist Robin Lohrey, a 15-year-old phenom who studied music in France.

Claudia Simpson-Jones, who has conducted throughout the States and for the Beijing Opera and Dance Orchestra in China, is the conductor. Erich Parce, a baritone who sang at the New York Metropolitan Opera for 18 years, is director. Robert Corl, a seasoned tenor who is co-founder of Opera Pacifica, will play Don Jose, the soldier who falls madly in love with Carmen.

In keeping with Opera Pacifica's mission, Simpson-Jones encouraged emerging artists on the island to audition for the chorus. "She really enjoys bringing people forward," choreographer Linda Downes said. "And it's exciting for the performers because they can add this professional credit to their resumes."

This event is the culmination of two years of work by Downes, producer of the Winter Song & Dance Festival at SJCT and of late the choreographer for Opera Pacifica's "The Producers" in May. She is promoting an elegant opera evening — kind of Big White Way meets Small Centennial Town.

"You don't have to leave the island for an evening like this," Downes said. Although there is no dress code, "I happen to know that many women are choosing to wear their best for our Saturday night performance. So please dress to the nines, and go out and enjoy a gala evening."

Pazzo Vivo restaurant will stay open for after-the-opera food and drink, as will Vinny’s restaurant — the latter by reservation only. Vinny’s owner Becky Day asks opera-goers to "make your reservations early."

For opera lovers who will be traveling to the island for the performance, or for those who want to "make a night of it," Lakedale Resort is offering a special package with lodge room for two, champagne, dinner, tickets and back-stage passes. Call 378-2350 or 370-5463, or visit www.lakedale.com

"Carmen" is set in Seville, circa 1830, and concerns the eponymous Carmen, a beautiful Gypsy woman with a fiery temper. Free with her love, she woos the corporal Don Jose, an inexperienced soldier. Their relationship leads to his rejection of his former love, mutiny against his superior, and joining a gang of smugglers. His jealousy when she turns from him to the bullfighter Escamillo leads him to murder Carmen.

"Carmen" will be performed Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m.; and Oct. 25, 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 for center section and $25 for all other seats. Tickets are available at 378-3210 or online at www.sjctheatre.org.

SEE IF YOU RECOGNIZE "CARMEN" CHORUS MEMBER JILL URBACH IN THIS EPISODE OF THE 1990s TV SERIES, "WEIRD SCIENCE"

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