Q & A: Glow Lyric Theatre’s Jenna Tamisiea Elser On Illuminating the Female Perspective In ‘Carmen’ & Other Works of 2019 SeasonBy David Salazar
Every year, the Glow Lyric Theatre does something that few other opera or musical theatres companies are willing to do – embrace the distinct art forms as siblings and celebrate their unique differences and similarities.
For several years the company has put on three shows in its summer season: an opera, an operetta, and a piece of musical theatre. But the company’s creators, Christian and Jenna Tamisiea Elser, don’t just put popular pieces next to one another and call it a day. Theirs is a process of thematic curation in which they design the slate around a clear concept or idea. In 2018, the company put together a season with such works as “In the Heights,” “HMS Pinafore,” and “Fidelio” working together to highlight the theme of freedom.
Now in 2019, the company is showcasing “Carmen,” “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” and “My Fair Lady” to question authority through the female perspective.
OperaWire recently had an opportunity to speak with Glow Lyric Theatre Artistic Director Jenna Tamisiea Elser about her vision for the season and how she, as the creative director, will approach these seminal works.
OperaWire: What makes this season at Glow Lyric Theatre unique?
Jenna Tamisiea Elser: This season is extremely personal for me. I am at a place in my life where I am starting to ask the same questions about my life and goals that the women in these productions are asking. I’ve already learned so much in our process from the leading ladies’ journeys, and it’s very special to get to work with material that grapples with the female identifying experience.
OW: How was this year’s slate of works picked?
JTE: One of my dreams for Glow has been to produce a season that would invite discussion about the nuances and complexities of womanhood, and that’s really what we are focusing on this year. With many women’s issues and rights at the center of our country’s debates, I thought it would be a welcome and refreshing change for our audiences to see women’s stories play out on the stage, from their perspective.
OW: What themes did you want to explore with regards to women’s stories?
JTE: I am more interested in revealing the realities of women’s lives than pushing some sort of empowering message. While I feel that empowerment is an important part of my experience as a woman, I also think learning from the mistakes and circumstances of these female protagonists as they work for agency in their lives is just as vital.
OW: How did “Carmen” fit into the trio? What do you want audiences to take away from the experience of engaging with these three works back to back?
JTE: The three shows center around three women, from all different backgrounds, time periods and situations, who are trying to gain control and agency over their lives. Sometimes the circumstances they find themselves in are funny and ironic, other times they are tough or dangerous situations. I think all three shows balance the realities of womanhood beautifully. For “Best Little Whorehouse,” I am focusing on Mona as a female entrepreneur, who is struggling to keep her business alive when the local government decides to shut the Whorehouse down. For “My Fair Lady,” I am most interested in conveying the power shift of Eliza and Higgins. As Eliza gains power and knowledge, suddenly Professor Higgins struggles to keep control over her. For “Carmen,” I am characterizing her as a hard working and vibrant woman who, in search of a better life, ends up in a tragic abusive relationship.
OW: How do the works illuminate one another and work together to create the overlying themes of the festival?
JTE: Really, all three shows contain three complex women as the protagonists in the shows. In my research and work with the scripts, the material does not need to be changed to elevate the female perspective. It’s all there and always has been, however, I think that all three shows have historically been presented through the male perspective. I am working in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to present these through a female lens.
OW: You mentioned that the male perspective dominates historical representations of these works and that you would seek to change this with the current productions. In the case of “Carmen,” her perspective would gain prevalence over Don José’s. How are you looking to achieve this in your interpretation?
JTE: I have challenged myself to re-think the opera through Carmen’s eyes. Throughout history, “Carmen” has been staged as Don Jose’s story, and the role of Carmen has generally been a foil to his journey. In our production, we are working to flip that interpretation. I’ve characterized the title role in our production of Carmen as a hardworking and vibrant woman who, in search of a better life, ends up in a tragic abusive relationship.
The world I’m creating for the production is somewhere in between where we are now in our country pertaining to women’s rights and choices, and the sort of dystopian environment we see in “Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s a world that is sometime in the 21st century – one that is fearful of women and works to strip their agency and choice. I’ve imagined a world that is run by a corrupt guerrilla militia, with very little structure.
Carmen’s response to this world is to resist, rebel and fight for her freedom. I’ve been working very closely with one of our community partners, Safe Harbor. Their mission is to provide services for victims of domestic abuse and their children. They have been guiding me and my actors in the rehearsal room as we create authentic and appropriate characterizations and choices for the production. We are interested in sparking discussions about women’s health, well being, safety and advocacy in South Carolina.
OW: Can you speak about the cast members, specifically for “Carmen,” and why they were the perfect choices for the production?
JTE: Our cast members hail from all across the country, and are all crossover artists, meaning they can slide easily between opera and musical theatre mediums. I’m especially excited to work with Shanelle Woods as Carmen and Hugo Vera as Don José. Both of these singers are amazing artists, in that they prioritize the acting work as much as their singing. A concept like this requires re-imagining intentions and relationships for the characters and I’m thrilled to work with singers who are humble, open to collaboration, and understand the greater purpose and importance of what we are trying to do in the festival.