Q & A: Tenor Matthew Pearce on Interpreting Don José in ‘Carmen’ & ‘La Tragédie de Carmen’

By David Salazar

“Carmen” is one of the most iconic operas ever written. It is performed everywhere around the world and in recent years, directors have tried to find new ways to reinterpret the story, sometimes even changing major components.

This isn’t new for an opera like “Carmen,” which actually exists in another well-known version “La Tragédie de Carmen.” While not performed as often as the original Bizet iteration, “Tragédie” is seeing increasing attention from companies around the world as it pares down the work to its bare narrative essentials, creating a unique experience.

Characterizations are altered and shifted in some respects, especially with regards to the central lovers, Carmen and Don José. It’s rare to see artists perform both works, but tenor Matthew Pearce is one who has.

The tenor performed Bizet’s version at Chautauqua and is now primed for a run of “Tragédie” with City Lyric Opera this May. The tenor spoke to OperaWire about interpreting this iconic character and differences between the two versions of the opera.

OperaWire: What is your interpretation of the character of Don José?

Matthew Pearce: I like to think of “Carmen” as Don José’s villain origin story. Don José starts off as a dutiful and respectable soldier who loves his mom and is going to get married to a beautiful religious girl and ends up turning into a disgraced soldier turned bandit who kills Carmen in cold-blood. Throughout the opera we see all the moments that add and lead to his eventual insanity. Whether or not we believe the flower Carmen gives him is cursed, Don José becomes completely entranced by not only Carmen but the idea of Carmen. He becomes the product of her treatment of him from their moments of romance to the bitter rejection and when his life begins to fall apart (no more military, now a bandit, Carmen losing her love for him, seeing her with another man) José snaps and we get to see the murderous insanity that he has inside of him.

OW: How is Don José similar or different from you?

MP: First and foremost, I have never killed a former lover. But, I can (as I hope others can) relate to the sense of complete desolation that he feels as his life collapses around him. Unfortunately, he takes it too far and forces others down with him. In my eyes he’s the every-man and anyone could have made the same decisions he did given the situation.

OW: How do you view the relationship between José and Carmen?

MP: I wouldn’t call their relationship particularly healthy but I do think there is a love there. Carmen is completely new to José and unlike anything he has experienced in his life which I think leads to his obsession with her and his tendency to get violent when it comes to defending their relationship.

I think that Carmen becomes surprised and scared as she develops true feelings for what should have been just another soldier. Its a bit of a rough combination that ends up collapsing into itself.

OW: At what point do you think he loses control and gives in to increased insecurity?

MP: José really begins to lose his control right after he abandons the military to become a bandit. Having to see how Carmen lives her life from the inside drives him constantly to jealousy and pushes him further to his violent tendency. When Carmen reads that she’ll lose her life from the Tarot cards, the relationship loses its momentum and fades away.

OW: You’ve sung both Bizet’s original and this adaptation “La Tragédie de Carmen?” What are the differences between singing the two versions?

MP: The biggest difference between “Carmen” and “Tragédie” is the time between José’s major musical moments. “Tragédie” removes a large portion of music that would normally give me a break before I have to come sing my next scene. As a result “Tragédie” is a fairly difficult sing. It takes a pretty solid grasp of the music technically to pull off, especially since the Flower aria comes after the intense Escamillo fight duet.

OW: How does the character of José change from one version to the other? How do his relationships, particularly with Carmen, change in the “Tragédie?”

MP: José is particularly more violent in “Tragédie” as well. His character development is reduced to his most emotionally intense scenes and he gets to kill a few more people as well.

“Tragédie” really focuses on José and Carmen’s relationship, which doesn’t really see much of a change from the original in my point of view. That said, his relationships with the two other main characters are pretty loose. José and Micaëla don’t really have a relationship arch. They sing their duet right off the bat and then don’t have a moment together again. José fights with Escamillo and then doesn’t see him again which I suppose is basically the same as Carmen as well.

OW: What is your favorite musical moment to perform and why?

MP: My favorite scene to sing has to be the final scene/murder of Carmen in both shows. How often does a tenor get to be genuinely menacing and murderous? Not often enough.

OW: And what about the most challenging moment in the opera to sing?

MP: The Micaëla duet is actually one of the more nerve-wracking parts for me to sing. It keeps you smack dab in the middle of the passagio for its entirety and is just a generally difficult way to start a show. But, if you have a good run at the duet, you can rest easy knowing the remainder of the show will probably go well too.

OW: How has this production with City Lyric Opera developed your understanding of the opera and character?

MP: “Tragédie” is a particular challenge because, in a show that runs around 90 minutes, there is not a lot of time to establish and develop the character. “Tragédie” has given me the opportunity to find new places to give glimpses into the mind of José, particularly in the Flower Aria. In “Carmen,” José is trying to prove his love to Carmen when she begins to mock him. In “Tragédie,” the aria comes immediately after Escamillo makes his play at Carmen so there is a deeper sense of desperation behind the aria as José must prove better than Escamillo. New perspectives of time-proven arias always make for a good time.

OW: What comes next after this run of performances?

MP: There are some not yet official things in the works but my next official project is covering as The Governor with the New York Philharmonic in a new David Lang opera, “Prisoner of the State.” After that, I will be headed to Chautauqua for the summer with the Chautauqua Institute Voice Program to sing Tebaldo in “I Capuleti e i Montecchi.”



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