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Arts & Culture

Obsession! Seduction! Tragedy! Oh, yeah … ‘Carmen’ is back in Boise

A photo grid showing the logo of George Bizet's Carmen on the top half, a woman on the lower left side wearing a red top and a man on the right side wearing a suit jacket and tie.
Opera Idaho, Briana Elyse Hunter, Joshua Dennis
Opera Idaho presents Bizet's Carmen on Friday, January 28 and Sunday, January 30.

When Opera Idaho last staged Bizet’s Carmen eight years ago, they set new box office records. When Opera Idaho’s creative team announced that they would revisit one of the most popular operas in history, the big question would be: Who will embody the iconic role … a character equally rich in nuance, independence and provocation?

Idahoans should be thrilled to note that Briana Elyse Hunter, fresh from a critically acclaimed performance at Carnegie Hall and her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, has landed in Boise to claim a mezzo soprano’s dream role.

Briana Elyse Hunter

“I think it's kind of the pinnacle and it's the coalescence of all the skills that we work at, all the ways we train with dancing and acting and singing,” said Hunter. “And it's definitely an all-encompassing role. You're very rarely off stage, and so it's kind of a role of endurance.”

Hunter joined costar Joshua Dennis to visit with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about their respective roles (he plays Don Jose), the new production, and to answer the question: What is an “opera poodle?”

Joshua Dennis

“I think in a multitude of ways, we're still dealing with a lot of the same issues that come up in the show.”
Briana Elyse Hunter

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice.  With the performing arts once again stepping into the spotlight, audiences are approaching live performance with a new level of engagement, particularly the classics, and it does not get much better than Bizet’s Carmen, which has thrilled audiences for nearly 150 years. Opera Idaho is preparing to bring Carmen back to Boise for the first time since 2014 when Carmen saw record crowds here in Idaho. This year, performances are set for Friday, January 28 and Sunday, January 30. Mezzo soprano Briana Elyse Hunter is here. The New York Times describes her as “radiant”. The Washington Post weighs in calling her “revelatory.” Her own 2021-22 season began with performances at Carnegie Hall and a debut at the Metropolitan Opera. We are thrilled to have her here this morning, Briana. Good morning.

BRIANA ELYSE HUNTER: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: Can I assume that Carmen is at or near the top of the mountain for a soprano?

HUNTER: Yeah, for sopranos and mezzo sopranos, I think it's kind of the pinnacle and it's the coalescence of all the skills that we work at, all the ways we train with dancing and acting and singing. And it's definitely an all-encompassing role. You're very rarely off stage, and so it's kind of a role of endurance. She can be played in a myriad of different ways by different people. So, yeah, it's always exciting to see a production of Carmen. It's always new.

PRENTICE: Yes, I want to talk about that. Let's bring in Joshua Dennis. He portrays Don Jose. Joshua has graced many of the nation's great stages, and he's a familiar voice to Opera Idaho fans. Joshua, this is your role debut, though, as Don Jose. Yes?

JOSHUA DENNIS: Yeah, it is.

PRENTICE: A lot of people have spilled a lot of ink in trying to deconstruct Don Jose. We meet him as a respectable soldier. But how do you meet his obsession for Carmen?

DENNIS: Well, you know, I'm inherently not a violent person. But I think that the key takeaway of playing somebody that's this dangerous is trying to really understand through the text that other people use to describe him as closely who this guy is, and try to relate to him as much as possible. You know, he has a deep relationship with his mother. I can relate to that. He's totally in love with Carmen. I can relate to being in love. So you find the human, the real normal human qualities that you try to relate to. And then when he goes off the top, you can't stop and go,”Oh man, this guy is a bad guy. I don't know.” You really, as an actor, have to sympathize and try to say, Well, what could have caused him to become this in his life? And how can I relate to that type of person? I think if you approach a character as judgment free as possible, we all know that murder is bad. So I don't have to justify me trying to figure out me. Josh Dennis, trying to figure out this character, Don Jose, because there are inherent truths to the morality that we know about. So that's what I do. I just try to deconstruct as much real human emotion from a character as possible and go from there.

PRENTICE: Brianna, it's fun to think about how wonderfully scandalous Carmen must have been in the 19th century, but yet it does resonate in many ways, don't you think, in the 21st century?

HUNTER: Oh yeah. I think in a multitude of ways, we're still dealing with a lot of the same issues that come up in the show.

PRENTICE: How would you describe this relationship, though? Is it intoxication? What is it that Carmen has? Is it power? Is it her singularity? What is it that is so unattainable for others?

HUNTER: When we see her, it's easy to point to things like, “Yeah, I think she's hot and he's intoxicated,” and all of that. At the end of the day, I think it's her confidence and the way she knows herself. That is kind of the core of the intimidation factor. Carmen is that… she really means what she says, She's like, “I want my freedom. I just want to live my life with my own rules.” And. It's one thing to say something, and another thing to live it… to walk the talk.  And she really walks the talk, and I think it's very disarming to folks. It's like, they both want it, and they resent it. It just stirs up every emotion in those around her.

PRENTICE: I don't know if this is a fair question: Is it a matter of you being ready for Carmen or Carmen being ready for you?

HUNTER: I don't know. Maybe Josh can answer that question.

PRENTICE: Ok, Joshua, what do you think?

DENNIS: Oh, well, Brianna stepped in, and from day one…you know, I've known Brianna for a few years now. Maybe about six years now. And I've never heard her sing Carmen before. I've never heard her sing this type of rich role. And from day one, I thought, “Holy crap, that's Carmen.” She sees everything. That’s what Carmen's sounds like. Walks, talks. She's got it figured out.

PRENTICE: Brianna, do you love it?

HUNTER: I do. I think I find something different about her every time…every time I come to this part, something else is revealed. And there's something she teaches me something. It's a hard thing… it's a hard way to be that confident, self-assured all of the time. I think I know you feel like sometimes people will say,”Oh, but you seem like, you know, everything” And it's, “No, no, I don't. I really don't”. So I feel like, yeah, it's always just fun to live in that space, in that skin, even though she pays dearly for it. But yeah, it's just… she's so much fun, and I really love bringing more and more humanity to her.

PRENTICE: Ok, here's the big question: What is it, “opera poodle?”

DENNIS: I have no idea what you're talking about.

PRENTICE: On Briana's Twitter profile, Her first piece of identification, other than her name and her photo, it says, “opera poodle.” Opera poodle just jumps out and you have my full attention. What is an opera poodle?

HUNTER: This is a joke that started years ago, and I can't… I can't remember. George, I'm not active on Twitter enough.

PRENTICE: But it's less about Twitter. It's … in the moment. At some point, it's, “You know what? I'm an opera poodle.”

HUNTER: I'm okay with that. Okay, I think this is kind of where it generated: when I was little, the movie “Oliver and Company” was my favorite movie, and Bette Midler played the poodle. She was a very big inspiration to me, and I think that's when I started singing opera, then I was… than I was opera poodle. Okay? So I love that you picked up on it.

PRENTICE: So, Joshua, it's up to you now to run with this for the next week or so.

DENNIS: Oh yeah.

PRENTICE: I just didn't know what to think. You know, why not? So, here she is: Carmen one day … Opera Poodle every other day.

HUNTER: That's actually pretty accurate. That's you talking about the contrast between Carmen and myself.

PRENTICE: She is Briana Elyse Hunter, he is Joshua Dennis and they are in Opera Idaho’s production of Bizet's Carmen, Friday, January 28, and Sunday, January 30 at the Morrison Center. Have a wonderful time with this. Goodness knows. Audiences will and thank you so much for giving us a few smiles this morning.

DENNIS: Oh, thanks for having us.

HUNTER: Thanks for having us.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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