A couple of years ago you sang Azucena in Il trovatore for us, and here you are, once again playing a Spanish gypsy. Carmen and Azucena are pretty different characters...do they have anything in common?
Yes, and what’s interesting is that when I plan my dresses for a concert, I put the gypsies back-to-back—first Azucena, a bit more covered, with a shawl or something, and then for Carmen I take that off and try to be sexy! [Laughs] But they have more than that in common—a way of thinking about the future, believing in the cards, in destiny.
A lot of the men in both those operas consider these women witches. Do they believe that themselves, or do they just like the power these rumors give them over the men?
When you believe in your power, you can be a witch. When you say, “This is going to happen,” and you really strongly believe it, you can call that witchwork. And in these operas somehow it works. As you can see, we witches are right!
Is Carmen the most popular opera in your native Poland, the way it is in the US?
I think Carmen is the most popular opera all over the world. When you ask people what kind of opera they like, Carmen is always first.
Do you remember your first experience of Carmen?
Yes, it goes back to 1992, when I won the Alfredo Kraus Competition—the second round took me to Vienna, where Agnes Baltsa was the queen of Carmen at the Vienna Staatsoper at that time. I was a poor young student, and so stood in line a long time to get cheap tickets to the performance, and I remember being so tired after waiting in this queue! And all I could afford was a standing room pass, so my feet were tired and in pain. But five years later I was singing the opera there, in the same production.
You went from standing room to centerstage.
It was a great experience. I was nervous, because I hadn’t had an opportunity to rehearse with the orchestra. My first entrance was the moment when I could hear the orchestra for the first time. I remember how stressed I was, singing the Habanera, because I couldn’t hear the orchestra—I didn’t know if I was in the right key, or anything. I was so nervous, when I came offstage and saw the manager standing there with some people I didn’t know, and a strange expression on her face, I ask “So...was it so bad? What happened?” And she says, “We have a fire underneath the stage!” And I say, “Oh! Fire, that’s nothing!” I thought it was something I had done. But the audience reaction was great, and I had a big success.
What’s the most challenging thing about performing Carmen?
At that performance I discovered that the Habanera is very difficult, because you cannot hear the orchestra very well. I learned then that I have to be close to the orchestra while singing that, or have a monitor onstage with me, to be sure.
Yes, all three of your big arias—the Habanera, the Seguidilla, and the dance at the top of Act Two—there’s not much orchestra, just dance rhythms.
It’s also a lot of work. Beyond the fact that you have to sing well, it’s really hard work physically. It’s for a person who is in very good shape. You have to dance and control your breath. If you tire out your diaphragm, (imitates being out of breath) it’s very difficult to control your breath. And you have to convince the audience that you are a twenty year-old gypsy from Spain who accidentally speaks fluent French...it’s not easy!
What’s the most fun or enjoyable thing about performing Carmen?
It’s a big challenge, which is why it’s such a big satisfaction when you do it well. I go in with a vision of my performance, the character, everything that I would like to do onstage. When I do what I wanted to do, then I’m happy with my work. It doesn’t always happen. But that’s the biggest prize.
Dulcinée in Don Quichotte, a role you sang for us earlier this year, has a lot in common with Carmen. How do you compare and/or contrast these two roles?
She is also Spanish, and in our production she also had a beautiful dress! The dress Carmen wears in the last act is so beautiful, oh my God, it’s the most beautiful dress I’ve ever had, it’s so beautiful and sexy. Dulcinée also had a great dress...I may very well buy that dress from Seattle Opera to use at concerts. Also, like Carmen Dulcinée is independent. She plays with the boys, but she is not a person with whom you can think about family, children, a stable home.
What would Carmen do if she met Don Quichotte?
He is an interesting personality and I’m sure that she would like to discover some mysteries of his soul. But I don’t think that this is the kind of man...
She wouldn’t toy with him the way Dulcinée does.
No, Carmen knows exactly what kind of man she wants, and she doesn’t waste time.
Why does she lose so much time with José? José’s obviously not the right guy for her.
He is interesting to her because she cannot have him, at the beginning. She can have everybody. But at the beginning, we see that he is completely in his own world. So she uses all her charm, and this witch-thing and finally...it’s a little bit like Dalila: she has to have whatever she wants. But I wouldn’t trust Dalila, and I would trust Carmen. She is honest. She is what she is.
Would you work at the same cigarette factory with her?
[Iaughs] I think it’s dangerous to have a person like this around.
The way you’re playing it, does Carmen pick the fight with Manuelita in order to get Don José to pay attention to her?
I don’t think so. Carmen is just action and reaction; she doesn’t analyze. I think she just goes for it.
What is different about Carmen here in Seattle from other times you’ve played it?
When you do a lot of productions of an opera, it’s not easy to discover something new. But with Bernard [Uzan, Seattle Opera’s Carmen director] some meanings are more clear now for me. With the dialogues, with Bernard we analyze each word, or look for the second meaning of the word. I like that analysis very much, it brings me closer to the character.
Also, it’s important for me that each of my characters be different at the end than how they were in the beginning.
But Speight Jenkins has said that the problem with Carmen is that she doesn’t change.
She has the same principals, beliefs, philosophy. But she’s grown through the experiences she has during this opera. At the beginning, she doesn’t know she must die. She thinks she’s immortal. She is young and believes she can get everything that she wants without paying for it. She learns that everything costs something—you have to give something to get something. Everything has its price.
That’s why she is not afraid of dying in the very last scene.
She must pay the price for the life she has lived.
Always. It’s like with a child, she is always checking how far she can go. In the very last scene with José: he says, “Stay with me or I will kill you,” and she is so determined: “Okay, then kill me!”
Testing him: will you REALLY kill me?
Yes. And then she sees that he is so weak. And she thinks, “Oh, weak bastard, I go to my new guy.” And so he kills her. It’s not what he wants to do. He wanted to use this argument to keep her with him, but it didn’t work. It doesn’t work with Carmen.