Since its premiere almost 150 years ago, Carmen, Georges Bizet’s passionate salute to freedom and frenzied love, has come to assume towering proportions. But like virtually any aspect of history, the passage of one of Western opera’s most cherished works from first appearance to eventual mass adulation was destined never to track in a straight line.

Opéra comique or grand opera — dialogue spoken or through-composed recitative — the heated debate stoked by legions of unyielding critics concerning the fundamental identity of the piece raged on well beyond the turn of the century. And then there was the issue of libretto. Adapted from a somewhat voyeuristic novella written by best-selling author Prosper Mérimée, Carmen was tenaciously, even bitterly scorned following its Paris opening in 1875. Haughty, intemperate, thoroughly unconventional the opera’s gypsy protagonist wore her aura of social and moral indifference like a crown, exposing all the bigotry and oppression of the Third Republic.

Misogyny — women deprived of basic social and political rights. Racism — stateless Roma itinerants forced to exist as an underclass. Class struggle — law and order ignored by the impoverished and dispossessed. Carmen, outsider, misfit, moral freedom fighter struck a defiant pose, a rebel more by way of simple presence on stage than carefully plotted theatrical act.

Early audiences shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

Raising the curtain on the multi-faceted thriller by seasoned Belle Époque dramatists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, Toronto indie opera producer, Loose Tea Music Theatre zooms in on its latest production, Carmen #YesAllWomen, a ferocious 21st century take on the classic proto verismo tragedy seen through a close up lens. Writer/Director Alaina Viau and collaborator Monica Pearce not so much turn a blind eye to Carmen’s historical depth of field, more elect to bring the opera’s central foreground into sharp focus. Seen from the two co-authors viewpoint, the notion of Carmen as a personification of all women subjected to harassment and violence at the hands of men regardless of time or circumstance, is surely a notion Bizet and his visionary partners would have understood had they lived today.

Viau/Pearce’s Carmen, proprietor of a run-down inner city dive bar, unwittingly finds herself the object of Afghanistan vet John Anderson’s PTSD-triggered compulsive obsession.  Misconstruing Carmen’s party girl geniality for approval, provoked by twisted jealousy with the appearance of glam rapper Maximillian on the scene, John, hopelessly alienated and damaged, murders her.

The emotional correspondence of character and consequence, Carmen then and now, could not be starker. The climax arrives, albeit off stage, shattering in its inevitability.

Set and staging, as might be expected given the limitations of budget and Loose Tea’s iconic Heliconian Hall venue, are minimalist, though certainly not without resonance. A battered table and chairs signify Carmen’s Place, lowered lights and the addition of a pair of ersatz neon signs identifying that legendary “little bar in the Junction” (sung to Près des ramparts de Séville), Lilly Preston’s. Live to projection video, actively employed from start to finish of the performance, conveys every minute pixel of action to a pair of looming makeshift jumbotron-sized screens, wrapping us in the larger than life ebb and flow of story and character. The unsettling effect, communicated by a ubiquitous pair of mobile camera operators, feels more like a metaphorical statement of unblinking purpose than a mere extension of sightlines, the macro and micro of Viau/Pearce’s excruciating narrative inexorably on display.

Composer Samuel Bisson’s taut, tumultuous score further reflects and intensifies the sense of looming catastrophe, compelling, highly textured music nimbly re-composed and arranged, strident and dissonant at times, glowing and attractively monophonic at others. Played by a duo of fine interpretive cellists (Bisson and Amahl Arulanandam), Carmen #YesAllWomen weaves a gripping spell, crisp digital audio and turntable cues by SlowPitchSound punctuating the urgent soundscape — Bizet reinvented.

Singing the title role, mezzo-soprano Erica Iris fashions a Carmen of great authority, her appealing burnished tone and no-nonsense stage manners ideally suited to the steely heroine, a portrayal at once both familiar and distinctive. Baritone Keith Klassen appears as John. Seemingly unfazed by this vocally taxing Carmen’s sky high tessitura, Klassen largely rises to the challenge singing an affecting version of Bizet’s La fleur que tu m’avais jetée reborn as Viau/Pearce/Bisson’s touching, “This flower I can’t keep has changed something for me inside”. Soprano Beth Hagerman is John’s abused wife, Michaela, singing with truly operatic show-stopping power and emotion, her rather spectacular instrument ringing with helplessness and pain. Baritone Bradley Christensen contributes an irresistibly outrageous, crooner-voiced Maximillian, all testosterone and tattoos. Mezzo Zoe Clark and soprano Erin Stone are Carmen’s friends, Mercedes and Franky, their tightly harmonized, all too brief Act II duet, “Text us when you get there,/Text us when you’re on your way”, a fleeting highlight of the evening. Tenor Keenan Viau is Zander, a regular at Carmen’s, something of an ersatz Lieutenant Zuniga perched on a bar stool, Bizet soldier’s uniform exchanged for suit, an unrepentant smooth-voiced pest.

Three years in development, bravely conceived and executed, Carmen #YesAllWomen stands as a testament to the courage of its creators. A difficult piece. A shout of rage. A scream.  A plea. Viau and company have forged a devestating work.

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Above: Erica Iris as Carmen, Keith Klassen as John. Photo: Dahlia Katz