all photos: Franz Mahr

This Saturday, September 19th, Washington National Opera will kick off its new season with a brand new staging of one the world’s probably best loved operas: Carmen. What you are about to see on stage is a veritable tornado of desire, danger, gypsies and bullfights that would have made Bizet’s masterpiece both a perfect opera gateway drug and a great candidate for a prime-time soap were it written in 2015 instead of 1875.


What happens backstage before the big curtain goes up is a veritable tornado of wigs, eyeliners, carefully sorted undergarments and almost 200 humans working on the production. Passions flare, bobby pins fly, babies are tended to in between make-up sessions, and everyone is permanently strung between the two worlds (one being DC in 2015, the other being 19th century Spain). It is pure magic. How do we know all that? Because we were lucky enough to be invited backstage before and during one of their tech rehearsals this week (a Washington National Opera first!) and as such were privvy to a slice of this-is-how-the-magic-happens.


Kennedy Center is a beast of a building. And the rehearsals happen deep in the belly of that beast. Once you are taken in (through hallways, elevators, stairs and then more hallways, elevators and stairs), it requires a certain confidence to know that you will ever be let out. We stop by the fight rehearsals first. Which, in this production, is a very real, very serious thing, a mixture of dance and physicality and acting which tests the cast’s skill sets to the limits. Carmen, after all, is a fiery gypsy, equal parts trouble and loveliness, and the opera sees her both provoking and partaking in battles of arms and hands and hearts.


Clementine Margaine and Geraldine Chauvet alternate in the role in this production and Chauvet is lovely and determined in her fight choreography the day we visit. All smiles and cat eyes one moment, and ruthless the next, she IS Carmen, even in jeans and a silk button up.


Up the stairs, the children’s chorus practices. Their piano room is one of the only ones in the whole building that has windows and they boom and march and sing (All in French, no less) with the kind of enthusiasm and pitch one would expect from performers twice their age.


The real treats are, of course, the dressing and make-up rooms. With a cast of over a hundred, the beauty and costume department is kept busy at all times. There are inspiration sheets on the walls, piles and piles of wigs everywhere (“There is A LOT of hair in this production”) and the two parallel corridors buzz with controlled chaos.


“Remember Tristan and Isolde where there was, like, 3 people on stage total?” someone cracks. “I wouldn’t know, I never seem to get those kinds of productions” a make-up artist deadpans. Everyone laughs.


This, while obviously a challenge, is clearly such a fun production for everyone involved: the high drama, the glamour, these are the reasons one chooses to work in the opera world after all.


As lipsticks are being blotted and hair set in perfect curls, the flamenco dancers practice. This production features two stars of the genre, principal dancer Timo Nunez (whom you maybe remember from “So You Think You Can Dance”) and Fanny Ara. Their performances perfectly complement the sensual, determined rhythm of the play.


It is amazing to think that all this came together in just over a month of rehearsals.


And then, just like that, it is 10 minutes till curtains. Everyone runs to check their costumes and lips, and is ready for their cue.


What happens after, well, you have to come to the Kennedy Center Opera House and see. Carmen is playing September 18-October 3rd and if what we saw (and you will see above and below), both old and new fans are in for a treat.

Cue the Habanera: