Posted: July 27, 2016
Written by: Bob Keyes
Maya Lahyani grew up in Israel with a sense of survival ingrained in her psyche. Every Israeli child comes of age with the idea of fighting for your beliefs. At age 18, she joined the Israeli army, as most Israelis do.
Lahyani, now 34, sings opera and is tough as nails. You feel it in her handshake, which is unrelentingly firm, and you understand it when you see her move on stage in her title role in “Carmen,” the sultry summer production of PORTopera, on stage Friday at Merrill Auditorium.
She moves with purpose, confidence and enough strength of stride that her character, a Gypsy smuggler, is entirely believable. Men, who dream of being close to her, are wise to give her a wide berth. Women are jealous and wish her demise.
Carmen stands up to all of them, singing in the faces of her lover and enemies, and facing all threats eye to eye.
“I have a clear idea of who she is and, more, who I am while I’m portraying her,” said Lahyani, a mezzo-soprano who is singing this role for the third time. “Working on ‘Carmen’ is a little like therapy. You get to dig deep inside as a woman and work on yourself.”
She wants people to empathize with her Carmen, even if they are not particularly fond of her. If she does her job well, the audience will be sympathetic. “You should feel for her, but not feel sorry for her,” Lahyani said.
The tale of love, lust and revenge centers on Carmen and Don Jose, whom Carmen lures away from his beloved peasant girl. Bitter jealousy follows, and things do not end well for lovely Carmen.
This is the third time PORTopera has presented “Carmen,” which is one of the world’s most popular operas. The French composer Georges Bizet wrote the opera in the late 1800s, based on an earlier novella. The score has several widely recognized songs, including popularly known “Toréador Song” and “Habanera.”
PORTopera presents a fully staged version, sung in French with supertitles.
Lahyani was the 2010 grand finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and recipient of an Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera. Last season at the Metropolitan Opera, she performed as or covered Maddalena in “Rigoletto,” Lola in “Cavalleria Rusticana” and a serving woman in a new production of “Elektra” by director Patrice Chéreau.
PORTopera artistic director Dona D. Vaughn directs, and Stephen Lord conducts the orchestra.
Vaughn cast Lahyani because she sensed the singer’s toughness. She liked her voice, but she especially liked her background as an army veteran. “I wanted a Carmen I know would stand up for herself,” Vaughn said.