Ahead of starring in the title role in the Welsh National Opera’s latest production of Carmen – a world-renowned 19th-century French tale – mezzo-soprano and director Julia Mintzer speaks to Vid Simoniti about the potential of portraying historical roles with contemporary feminist influences.

JULIA MINTZER appears on my Skype screen. Her hair is still wet from the shower; the café in Cardiff’s Millennium Centre is in the background. It’s 9am and Julia has just come back from the gym. It reminds me that opera singers are athletes as much as they are artists. Julia is preparing for the titular role in Carmen with the Welsh National Opera – first in Cardiff, then on a tour that includes Liverpool. The role is a physically demanding one, including several fights, plenty of dancing, and, of course, she has to project her voice over the full 19th-century orchestral score.

“Hey, thank you so much for fitting me into your schedule,” says Julia in her warm Pennsylvania tones, even though the busy schedule is clearly hers. We’re here to talk about the upcoming role, the ability of opera to tackle contemporary political concerns and her unusual double life as an opera singer and director. First, I want to know how it feels to be doing her ninth Carmen.

“Oh, this one is quite different,” she says, “in part because the director, Jo Davies, deliberately stays away from the conventions. The production is set in a favela in Brazil. The stereotypical Carmen is wild, fiery, to the point that she’s out of control – that’s some of the romance of her. In our production, she lives in the moment, but she’s actively making the choice to employ her sexual charisma as one of the tools she can use to survive. Sometimes, what she needs to do to seize agency can be quite dark, even sociopathic. And the fights are much more brutal than I’m used to!”

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We quickly get into a discussion of the tropes of femininity that she comes up against as an opera singer and director. Carmen, of course, is opera’s great ‘femme fatale’. Complete with a flamenco dress and a rose in her hair, Carmen is – next to Wagner’s horned-helmet Valkyrie – opera’s most iconic female lead, but also one that is inescapably associated with being an object of erotic desire. Would it not be tempting, I suggest to Julia, to subvert that type and play Carmen as a feminist figure?

“When we remount a canonical work,” Julia reflects, “we sometimes have an ethical obligation to situate it within the political current to which it seems most obviously connected.” But she does not think that the character of Carmen’s best use is as a feminist icon. “Carmen does not have the luxury of thinking outside of herself; she is not concerned with changing a culture. She is trying to navigate the dangerous world she inhabits, minute to minute. The production can – and does – make interesting points about how she is forced to operate beneath the gendered gaze that permeates her world, but she herself isn’t a force for feminism.”

What Julia appreciates about the WNO production is the complex psychological characterisation, and the corresponding close attention to detail that the conductor, Harry Ogg, pays to the way text is set in the score. “There are also many other political issues at work in Carmen”, Julia suggests. “There is Carmen’s racial and cultural otherness, and that she is part of a group that operates on the edge of the economy. There is the military setting, the exploitative relationship between the occupier and the occupied.”

Creating compelling theatre out of 19th-century classics, it seems, depends not so much on grafting on a political message, but scouring the libretto and the music for such revealing details within.

Unusually for her profession, Julia encounters such staging dilemmas both as a singer and director. Opera singers have historically been musicians first and foremost, concerned primarily with their instrument, and so the cross-over into directing is far rarer in opera than in theatre and film. For Julia, however, directing was her first passion. “I spent much of my high-school years in theatre, which included making some horribly pretentious work out of my teenage angst,” she laughs. While studying voice at the Juilliard School in New York, she also studied Anthropology at Columbia University, and kept directing. In fact, I got to know her work as a director first, initially through her performance art piece Pizza Parlance at the 2015 Venice Biennale, then through her surprisingly amusing production of Heinrich Marschner’s Der Vampyr for Gothic Opera, showing in London this past autumn.

“Carmen does not have the luxury of thinking outside of herself; she is not concerned with changing a culture” Julia Mintzer

“Part of the fun with Der Vampyr was that you cannot actually take it seriously,” she muses. “You have to embrace the ridiculousness of this being a German grand opera about a nefarious vampire.” Some of Julia’s production was downright farcical. When the heroine dismembers her father (an added directorial twist), an extraordinary number of organs spill out – a refreshing sight in opera, for sure.

While Julia’s work as director is certainly nonconformist (her all-female version of La Bohéme was set in the Occupy Wall Street movement), she does not see the operatic canon as something to be simply toppled. Perhaps it is her experience as a singer that leads her to understand operas, instead, as complex, open-ended texts. “With the works that come to us from another era, a lot of the interpretation comes from the question of who we trust to be the reliable narrator. Do we go with what the composer is telling us, or the librettist, or one of the characters, who may not necessarily be the protagonist?”

With Der Vampyr, for example, this resulted in a surprising but compelling interpretation. “With the three ingenues, I thought – they’ve got no agency to fight their way out of their oppressive present, so their best option is to wait it out… which might take forever. So immortality as a vampire becomes a very appealing option.” 19th-century village girls may not have been able to conceptualize that, but Julia gets around the problem precisely with the humorous staging: the improbable seems more natural when it is funny.

Indeed, some of those rare moments of cathartic self-criticism – which, we might think, all dramatic arts aim to encourage in their audiences – may be more easily reached through laughter than tragedy. The other directorial construct of Der Vampyr was that the vampire anti-hero needed to obtain consent before biting. “At some points,” remembers Julia, “the audience giggled uncomfortably at the word ‘consent.’ The idea was to catch the viewer off guard with extremely dark humour, then let them be shocked to realize what they’d laughed at – to hold a mirror up to the process of desensitisation that’s become the norm in so much popular media.”

Julia’s approach in both directing and singing roles seems, to me, to capture one way out of the predicament that I have always felt exists with restaging classics, be they opera or theatre. Classics can be layered, compelling, beautiful works: that is why they have survived the test of time. But they are shot through with political distance that makes them especially hard to watch ‘in public’. In the auditorium, our elation, tears and laughter become a matter of public knowledge. We feel duty-bound to challenge the moral flaws of previous centuries, lest our fellow-watcher should mistake our silence for complicity; but, on the other hand, heavy-handed adaptations can soon feel clumsy and sanctimonious. Letting the politics bubble to the surface through humour, or through complex characterisation, seems like a better way forward.

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Carmen by the Welsh National Opera shows at the Liverpool Empire, Thursday 26th to Saturday 28th March.

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