Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Consumed with passion

Carmen is an excellent starting point for opera virgins

James McLennan, right, as Remendado in Carmen at the NAC. Credit: Sam Garcia

Your first time should be memorable.

Although they’re opera stars these days, queer artists Alain Coulombe and James McLennan both remember a time when they didn’t think opera was for them. 

“I had the prejudices that opera’s inaccessible, it’s for the elite and that’s totally false,” says Coulombe, an established opera star who’s celebrated for his deep bass voice and charismatic stage presence. “You go to see opera and it tells a story . . . that is closer to us than we think. It’s no more expensive than going to a hockey game.”

McLennan, a Winnipeg native whose clear tenor voice and versatile performances have made him one of opera’s rising stars, says Opera Lyra Ottawa’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen — currently at the National Arts Centre — is an ideal show for opera virgins.

"Carmen is one of the top three operas in the world for a very good reason. It’s a fantastic work,” says McLennan, who plays the smuggler Remendado. “To hear it performed the way it was meant to be performed with a full orchestra, a full chorus, great soloists — it’s a great experience, especially for first-time opera goers. It’s a great chance to get them hooked.”

Set in Seville, Spain, during the mid-19th century, Carmen centres on a beautiful Roma woman, played by Italian mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe, who has a tempestuous, ill-fated love affair with soldier Don Jose, played by notable tenor David Pomeroy.

Even if the genre of opera is new to you, McLennan says, don’t be surprised if some of the music is familiar. Boasting some of the greatest hits in opera, Carmen’s music has been used on TV shows and in commercials.

While the central story in Carmen is tragic, the opera also has its comedic moments, with McLennan taking part in many of them.

“I come from a background of a lot of improv and physical comedy with the Second City in Toronto,” McLennan says. “My character’s a little bit of a comic relief. He’s a smuggler, so he’s a sneaky guy but he’s also kind of a funny guy.”

Sexuality and power also play a significant role in Carmen, with Coulombe’s character, Captain Zuniga, manipulating and being manipulated by Carmen at the same time.

“I have authority because I’m in the forces, but Carmen has so much charm that I get completely consumed with passion for her,” Coulombe says. “I get manipulated, but at the same time it’s a game for me as well, a game of power with Carmen. I have power over her and it kind of thrills me, gives me some excitement in my little life.”

With resplendent costumes, Bernard Uzan’s direction and Opera Lyra Ottawa’s artistic director Tyrone Paterson conducting the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Coulombe and McLennan promise a full, theatrical experience ideal for opera first-timers and aficionados alike.