Q & A: Marie Karall on ‘Carmen,’ Theater Dortmund & Stylistic Differences

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Mat Ninat Studio)

Mezzo-soprano Marie Karall has gained recognition throughout the past years for her “distinguishable dark colors” and for her “highly dramatic tone and emotional involvement.”

The French mezzo has steadily raised her profile throughout the world performing at major theaters as the Chorégies d’Orange, Bordeaux National Opera, Montpellier National Opera, Avignon Opera, and the Théâtre des Champs Elysées Paris, among others. Her repertoire is also expansive, ranging from the Bel Canto to French, Verismo and Verdi and she has been quickly adding the dramatic roles of the mezzo repertoire.

This season Karall will open the Theater Dortmund season with a production of “Carmen” and will return for a new production of “Frédégonde” by Saint-Saëns.

Karall spoke with OperaWire about her debut in Dortmund, “Carmen” and her upcoming projects.

OperaWire: You open the Theater Dortmund next season with “Carmen,” an opera you have done on numerous occasions. Tell me about your interpretation of the character?

Marie Karall: Carmen is a rich, intense and passionate character, incandescent and complex. I see her as a free spirit, rebel by nature, strong and determined. Independent, she never gives up her freedom. She has a kind of animal instinct, a very developed intuition. Even though Carmen is a manipulator and her affair with Don José started off as a game with the flower, she is also so whole. I can hardly imagine that she never felt anything for him.

OW: What are the greatest challenges of Carmen musically and character-wise?

MK: For me, the musical challenge is to try to keep as close as possible to the score, the whole score and nothing but the score, and to forget traditions and certain habits; in terms of rhythm but also in terms of nuances. It’s fascinating to see how Bizet wanted his Carmen to be full of contrasts.

The duet « là-bas, là-bas dans la montagne » starts pianissimo after some introduction phrases written pianississimo. I imagine it as a whisper, a fine thread of voice, well supported on the breath. The sentences are of immense beauty. Once again, the orchestration of the habanera is also very subtle and light, and the composer asks us to start the aria piano. The intensity of the character doesn’t necessarily mean a constant powerful voice.

Another musical challenge for me, is to seek to be in balance with all the different stylistic influences in Bizet’s masterpiece. “Carmen” is originally an Opera Comique, the quintet seems to be reminiscent of Offenbach’s style. At times, we can also sense the influence of Gounod’s romanticism, and in the last act, the music takes a more dramatic turn.

Character-wise, the challenge for me is to make Carmen be neither a caricature nor be uniform. Thug, but not necessarily aggressive, charming but without simpering, nor vulgar. Manipulative but sincere, smuggler but faithful to her values, casual, etc…

OW: How has your interpretation changed over the years? What have you learned from doing this work over the years?

MK: When I first started out playing Carmen, I was essentially focused on building and materializing the role. Nowadays, it’s more about developing Carmen’s inner strength, I have learnt to further develop all of her different nuances, not only in the character itself, but also in the singing.

Ever since the first time I played Carmen, it has always been an exhilarating experience, teaching me different things each time. But I’ll never forget the first: as I was preparing my role debut as Carmen for Opera Hong Kong, I was called out for an unexpected replacement at the Latvian National Opera, which definitely taught me the capacity to work in emergency for example!

OW: What are some of your favorite parts of singing this role?

MK: The duet « là-bas, là-bas dans la montagne » I was talking about earlier, is, for me, one of the most beautiful ones. It’s a balm for the soul and the voice. I also really like the final scene, in which the music is so expressive and the orchestra so powerful! I literally have goose bumps every time!



OW: What are you looking forward to in your debut at the Theater Dortmund?

MK: I’ve always admired Germany for it’s very good orchestras and great musical culture. This will be my second time over there, I already did “L’Enfant et les sortilèges” in Stuttgart (SWR) for which a record was made. Opernhaus Dortmund hosts great productions, so it’s an honor for me to be invited as a guest, and I’m very much looking forward to it!

I was born by the banks of the Rhine, in Strasbourg, so German culture seems somewhat familiar to me, and I can’t wait to enjoy some more German pastries!

OW: Next season you will also do “Frédégonde.” Tell me about the work and what audiences can expect in terms of music? How are the styles of Saint-Saëns and Dukas similar?

MK: This work plunges us into the heart of French history, the Middle Ages. Frédégonde, wife of Hilpéric, Queen of Neustria, and Brunhilda, wife of Merowig, Queen of Eustrasia, fight to transmit the kingdom of the Franks to their respective descendants.

Frédégonde, a servant who became favorite, then Queen, was nicknamed “the bloodthirsty Queen.” Ready for anything, in her relentless quest for power, she killed anyone who might have thwarted her ambitions.

The project is led by the Dortmund Opera House, in collaboration with the Palazzetto Bru Zane. As you point out, this opera is by Ernest Guiraud and Camille Saint-Saëns, but Guiraud died three years before the Premiere of Frédégonde. Saint-Saëns, out of friendship, wrote the end of Acts three, four, and five. The orchestration of the first three acts was carried out by a pupil of Guiraud: Paul Dukas. I like the pages written by Saint-Saëns, a composer that I particularly appreciate.

One can note a difference between these composers in particular “in the treatment of the dramatic plot: where the music of Guiraud / [Dukas] imposes a constant tension, the less dense one of Saint-Saëns respects more the nuances of the narrations” (Etienne Jardin)

OW: Your repertoire is very diverse. You sing a wide range of styles from Verdi, Verismo and French. How do adjust to the different styles and what do you find most comfortable for your voice?

MK: When I go from one composer to another, I try to maintain healthy singing and try to avoid changing my vocal output, or cheating on my vocal identity. I mainly work on style and colors with my vocal trainers, and the language too. I feel comfortable in the styles of Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Verdi, and also Offenbach from time to time.

I’ve never sung Wagner on stage, but I find the roles of Erda and Brangäne fascinating. I love Donizetti too. Right now, for fun, I’m singing the aria «Que faire, sol adoré» from Don Sebastian, Roi de Portugal.

OW: How is the French style different from the Italian repertoire?

MK: There is so much to say. For example, in Italian I attach great importance to prosody, accents. Italian is an open language, with beautiful vowels. In French, special care must be taken in the nasals, the [e] mutes at the end of words, among other things.

OW: Do you have a favorite opera or favorite role that you love to sing most and do you have a dream role?

MK: I love Carmen, Dalila. The Holy Grail for me is Charlotte. But I also dream of shorter roles like Pauline in the Queen of Spades, or Maddalena in Rigoletto. Maddalena, for example, at the Metropolitan Opera and the Opéra de Paris, would be a beautiful dreams come true, because they represent some of the highest levels of excellency.


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