On a well-lit stage, bare only for a metal pole and telephone box discreetly tucked into the left-hand corner, the provocative chromatic descent that begins one of opera’s most famous arias emerges from the silence. Justina Gringytė, the Lithuanian mezzo-soprano playing Carmen in Bizet’s opera, is clad in a black satin slip, circling the pole as she delivers a seductive rendition of “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (“Love is a rebellious bird”). Around her, a chorus of men, dressed in the casual attire of soldiers on lunch break, move in a homogenous block of intimidation and rabid sexual appetite.
For opera, perhaps more so than any other art form, the issue of contemporary relevance remains a particularly enduring challenge, with outmoded interpretations and eye-watering ticket prices serving a double punch of unfamiliarity and exclusion. Which is why Calixto Bieito’s feminist production of Carmen at the English National Opera (ENO) provides a subtle but powerful shift in contemporary operatic relevance — and Gringytė commands the shifting spotlight.
Carmen has until now been fixed in stage history as a flirtatious whore — but here she is a woman in love, guilty only of having said no to a man after first saying yes
“In more traditional stagings, Carmen is this awful woman, fickle and to blame for leaving the hero, Don Jose,” Gringytė says. “But with this production, we see a different picture. Jose is not a hero but a psychotic, bipolar man. It still very much honours the libretto and the music, but it’s a completely different interpretation, contemporary in a way that others aren’t.”
Set in the dying years of Franco’s Spain, ENO’s production is a woke interpretation of the most performed French opera in history. It eschews traditional long red skirts and castanets for skinny jeans and crop tops, and opts for a stage almost completely bare aside from the occasional prop; a 2D cut-out of a monstrous bull looming in the background. But this kind of aesthetic update, common in many of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, is secondary to the more fundamental modernisation in Bieito’s production. Carmen has until now been fixed in stage history as the flirtatious whore whose fall out of love leads her, if not understandably then inevitably, to a final crime of passion in which her partner slits her throat. But here she is a woman in love, guilty only of having said no to a man after first saying yes.
Born and raised in Lithuania, Gringytė has become one of the most well-known singers to come out of the Baltic nation in the last decade. She was part of the first cohort of teenagers to trial a form of musical education in Vilnius that fused intense conservatoire study with a rigorous high school academic curriculum, observing a study regime on the extreme end of a form of musical training which is already known to push children. In 2011, she was invited on to the Royal Opera House’s Young Artists Programme, a sought after fast-track to becoming a regular fixture on the company’s stage.
“I come from a small country but there’s a lot of talent there, so it was a big deal to me to get accepted into the Royal Opera House programme,” she says. “It all went very well, but it was a challenging time, because as a young artist you do small roles, then learn bigger ones, then learn repertoire for other recitals. It’s a lot to deal with.”
Whether there’s a gender pay gap among opera singers is unclear, she says, because “talking about our fees is a taboo”
Much of the career path for emerging opera talent is shaped by the few character roles they learn in their early twenties. The role of Maddalena in Verdi’s Rigoletto is one the proving ground that Gringytė recalls most often, probably, she says, “because of what it taught me about playing smaller roles”. Far from taking less time from the performer, it demands more, the work akin to that of the short story writer, who must establish an entire world in a much smaller space. “I really loved Maddalena, because while it’s a smaller role, it’s still very important,” she says. “A small role in terms of length and size doesn’t mean it’s less important character wise. I sometimes feel some smaller roles are more difficult because you have less time to convey character, not in terms of rehearsal time, but just less time on stage to create a full character. Because you still have to develop a character, you still have to make an impact.”
Conversation about the relevance of Carmen, at a time when allegations of sexual harassment have left few corners of the art world — including classical music — unscathed, turn to the opera industry. “‘Me Too’ goes both ways; ‘Me Too’ against men and against women,” she ponders, ambivalently. “I don’t know, I haven’t had this discussion with colleagues.” Whether there’s a gender pay gap among opera singers is unclear, she says, because “talking about our fees is a taboo”.
That opera should be as accessible as possible is not under discussion for Gringytė, although whether it’ll ever enjoy widespread appeal remains unclear (like football, it’s not to everyone’s taste, she says). But the Lithuanian education system which Gringytė grew up with, in which thought was given to how people should be introduced to opera, has left her with a clear idea for what parents and teachers trying to cultivate an appreciation of opera among young people should suggest: young teenagers to see Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and older teenagers to be taken to Puccini’s La Boheme and Carmen. “It’s not just the music; productions are important, too. The ears and soul need to be happy with the music, the eyes with seeing something nice,” she says. “All that’s missing is touch.”
Carmen is on at the Coliseum, London, until 27 February.