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'Carmen' gets a modern update for modern minds

Star Jennifer Johnson Cano says we need to drop the 'femme fatale" label.

A fiery, sultry, dangerous seductress best represented by a flirty red dress-donning dancer emoji comes to mind when we typically think of “Carmen.” But actress Jennifer Johnson Cano wants us to know: she’s so much more than that.

The St. Louis native takes on the famous (and sometimes unfairly, infamous) role of Carmen in Calixto Bieito’s production of French composer Georges Bizet’s four-act romantic drama at the Boston Opera House, opening Sept. 23. A co-production between Boston Lyric Opera and the San Francisco Opera, this “Carmen” gets an edgy, street-wise update set in 1970’s post-Franco Spanish North Africa.

Even people that aren’t familiar with opera are usually somewhat familiar off the character of Carmen — but did you learn anything new when you took on the role?
I think there are a lot of people who know Carmen [the character], even if they don’t know “Carmen” [the opera] and I think the limited amount of information has created a stereotype about who she is. But when you read the libretto and the original story that the opera is based on, I think you realize you’re getting just enough information, but not the whole story. I think that has pigeonholed the character in the minds of a lot of people. As I delved more into the show, what really struck me was the libretto itself. It’s much more tragic than a one-sentence character description. It’s a tragic love story about two people with intense chemistry, but that intense chemistry doesn’t make them viable partners as a couple.

Do you think Carmen has gained a bad reputation over her years in pop culture?
I do, actually. I think it’s very dangerous when we use a phrase to identify a character, or furthermore, a person. I know one of the words used to describe Carmen has been “femme fatale,” but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. It’s too simplistic. I think people categorize her as this “bad girl,” and I don’t think that’s true either.
I think there’s something to be said for someone who does what they have to do to survive. When you look at the actual text of the opera, you see she’s very loyal to the people that mean something to her. There’s honesty and a sense of duty. There’s also just living by one’s own moral code rather than how everyone else lives their lives. That’s not better or worse, it’s just different.


What do you think is generally misunderstood about Carmen?
The opera deal with this complicated dichotomy and the ideas of lust vs. love and freedom vs. possession and the idea of a person who lives outside of mainstream society. All of those things come together for me, and create a story full of characters that are complex and are dealing with modern and current issues we can all still relate to. The world hasn’t changed all that much.

What was important for you to bring to the role when you took it on?
I’ve played [Carmen] twice and the brilliance of the libretto and the score are that there’s just enough to give you guidelines for the characters, but enough ambiguity to allow you to make choices. My goal is that no Carmen I do will ever be the same. It’s also dependent on the director, who decides what an audience will take on within the full evening — which priorities and relationships and themes you’re going to highlight.

If you go:
Sept. 23-Oct. 2
Boston Opera House
539 Washington St., Boston,
Tickets start at $25, blo.org/tickets

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