July 24, 2016
Maya Lahyani, a mezzo-soprano who sings the role of Carmen, and Dona D. Vaughn, artistic director at PORTopera for 22 years, previewed the famous Bizet work that combines Spanish flair and iconic themes. Lahyani, an Israeli opera singer, is a 2010 grand finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the recipient of an Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera. Vaughn is artistic director of opera programs at Manhattan School of Music, and has led the PORTopera summer festival since its inception.
Vaughn is bringing back Carmen, a lusty tale of a passionate and beautiful woman who is often at the center of attention. She directed it here first in 1994 and then again 11 years later. The interview was conducted by Tim Gillis in the rehearsal halls of Merrill Auditorium, where the cast was getting in tune for two performances of the popular opera on July 27 and 29.
TG: Maya, have you been to Maine before? Been involved with this opera before?
ML: It’s my first time in Portland. I’ve been so excited for months. I’m an explorer in life and onstage so I love coming to a new wonderful place. I’m singing it (the role of Carmen) for the first time, but I have performed many parts on the show on many occasions. When I arrived and we were putting everything together, people refused to believe it was my first time. I know exactly who she is to me. Everyone has a clear idea who they want to see when they see Carmen: a sexy femme fatale, a man-eating creature. I think she’s very human, very charismatic. She doesn’t need to be pretty but is the center of attention, impossible to ignore. I don’t think she’s a villain. She doesn’t mean to hurt anyone, but she’s an uncompromising creature, lives in the moment, and doesn’t look back.
TG: Georges Bizet died heartbroken shortly after, right? Not knowing it would be one of the most popular operas ever.
ML: Carmen was almost the first feminist on stage. She had, what was considered in that time, manly behavior. If you didn’t belong to your husband, you belonged to your family. She didn’t. She always does what she wants, never lies, and wants to be free.
DV: She doesn’t respect weakness; she recoils from it.
TG: What are some changes you’ve made to this production?
DV: There are some distinctions. Eleven years ago and 22 years ago, those were very traditional. We’ve changed the time period for this one, brought it up to the last century, which affects costumes, set design, props. We had to find a period bicycle, had to find a period cart. But the themes remain the same and are just as relevant.
ML: Like the violence aspect, of a relationship that turns ugly and violent. The arc of Carmen herself, and José – he’s trying to redeem himself and then instead ends up killing her. She says love is like a rebellious bird, here one moment, there the next. She is, in all opera, one of the most honest characters. She repeats many times that she never lies. She will say things manipulatively to get things. Physically she will do things to get her way, but she never promises a man they’ll be together forever.
DV: She says I have to be free. Kill me now if I can’t be free.
TG: How do your bring new life into such a familiar, older work?
DV: I’m able to keep it fresh because it’s my passion, the fist in my back that pushes me forward. Even if I’m supposedly on vacation, I’ll go to see an opera and see the possibilities, what can happen, and see the possibilities that are not explored.
ML: Because it’s such a well-known opera, we do have to work to keep it fresh. You can fall into the clichés, the predictable, because the story’s not going to change. It can be difficult to find the authenticity.
DV: Very often people arrive with preconceived ideas, especially about the characters. It’s been wonderful working with Maya. She has an intrinsic knowledge of who this person is. She can move from traditional to contemporary. Her character is in place, and she knows what the relationship is.
ML: With Carmen, more than other character I play or portray, she has to be the most honest. There’s nothing worse than somebody trying to be something they’re not on stage. We’re all trying to be someone we’re not, but the more organic I make it, the more similar our personalities, the more I can also explore the sides where she’s different from me. When you watch it, I’m hopeful you believe everything that happens.
TG: Dona, you studied dance under Martha Graham. What was that like?
DV: She was unkind. She said the most unkind thing to me I’ve ever had anyone say. “Miss Vaughn,” she said. “Why do you continue to disrupt this class by taking it?” She would pound her cane. (Her feet were deformed by arthritis.) But I never gave up. She had something of a begrudged respect for me because I didn’t give up. I was not the best dancer in the class, but I loved her technique, her isolation exercises, and the way she used the body that was very different from any other dancing I had studied (jazz, ballet, and tap).
TG: You were also, at one time, associate producer of All My Children – quite a range of experiences, I would guess.
DV: That was not my first taste of soap opera. I was on Guiding Light, playing a brain surgeon. I thought I might be interested in the other side of television and they needed an assistant producer. I learned very quickly it was not something I wanted to do. With a soap opera, you have to live, sleep, eat that soap opera. You have to know everything about these characters who aren’t real. My husband, Ron Raines, played Alan Spaulding on Guiding Light for 15 years. People would stop him on the bus and say they hated him.
TG: What’s your impression of the Portland opera community?
DV: Portland is not a large city yet it supports an inordinate number of art organizations, from the symphony to the ballet to Portland Stage to PORTopera – all are prestigious and recognized nationally. PORTopera is more renowned nationally than locally, but they have grown each season. After 35 years in existence, people are still surprised to learn we have an opera company. We’ve been reviewed by Opera News, the Boston Globe, gotten a lot of recognition, yet somehow we have difficulty letting people know we’re here.
The four leads we have this year all sing at the Met. Stephen Lord, the conductor, has conducted all over the world and was named by Opera News as one of the 25 most important conductors in the world. The production management team works all over the country. But there’s an attraction to Merrill. I call it the jewel of Portland.
ML: I was in shock that a city the size of Portland has such an incredible theater. So many bigger cities don’t have that.
DV – The acoustics are perfect. You can hear a pin drop. Singers can sing upstage and still be heard. I’ve never had singers come here with PORTopera and not be amazed with the theater.
TG: What would you want you audience to take away from this production?
ML: People are intimidated by the opera. In the digital age, everything is being digested in short spasms. To watch opera, it combines all of the arts together – dancing, singing, music, set design, costumes — with no dividers, no barriers between the performer and the listener. I open my mouth and produce a sound and nothing is interrupted. It’s something so unique and moving. In an age when connections are less and less — we don’t talk, we text.
DV: You experience all the feelings of the human condition through the art forms. What can be better than that?