Opera MODO updates ‘Carmen’ with a ‘Orange Is the New Black” twist
Danielle Wright describes the opera company she founded as “the gateway drug to opera.”
“If we can get them in, they’re hooked,” the Detroit resident says.
Wright started Opera MODO in 2011 in Princeton, New Jersey, where she attended Westminster Choir College. Naming her nonprofit company after the Italian word for “opportunity,” Wright sought to give young performers a chance to get onstage and to make opera accessible to new audiences. She brought the company with her to Detroit in 2013.
Wright, 37, says it’s “imperative” that opera doesn’t die with the aging audiences who now primarily support the art form.
“We have to make this relevant to our generation and younger,” she says. “Otherwise, no one’s going to come anymore.”
For some of MODO’s productions, that means updating a classic opera to give it a setting more familiar to modern audiences. In the case of the company’s latest show, Georges Bizet’s legendary “Carmen,” the classic tale of seduction and revenge will take place in a minimum-security prison setting modeled after Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” The production runs Friday and Saturday at the Carr Center, and Feb. 26 and 28 at the Jam Handy.
“You do have to uphold the musical integrity, but to me that’s where it stops,” Wright says. “As long as the music is being performed incredibly well, then to reach the audience you have to update.”
The other key change in Opera MODO’s “Carmen” is that countertenor Bryan DeSilva will portray the title character as a transgender woman. Wright, who will direct the show, says her unique interpretation germinated while she was working with DeSilva on Opera MODO’s production of George Frideric Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” in which he played the title role. DeSilva expressed a passion for singing “Carmen,” and Wright was intrigued by his countertenor.
“It’s such a different color,” she says. “It’s very meaty, and he sounds more like a female mezzo than I had heard in quite some time.”
When “Orange Is the New Black” — well-known for its own transgender character, Sophia Burset — debuted in 2013, Wright’s concept for “Carmen” began to take shape. She abridged the nearly four-hour show to a manageable two hours and also cast both a male and a female to alternate between playing Don Jose, the ill-fated soldier Carmen seduces. Wright says she wanted audiences to be able to read the gender roles in Carmen and Don Jose’s relationship in multiple ways.
“Carmen, to me, equates to power,” she says. “I just want people to see that power and sensuality come in whatever package you allow them to.”
“Carmen” will be a landmark show for Opera MODO because it’ll be the first in which performers will be paid for their work. Organizers, cast and crew all volunteered their time for previous productions, but “Carmen” received a $20,000 grant last year from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Artistic director Steven McGhee says that’s an added bonus for many Opera MODO performers who pursue singing as a side job or hobby.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor based freelance writer.
7:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat.
The Carr Center
311 E. Grand River, Detroit
7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 and 3 p.m. Feb. 28
The Jam Handy
2900 E. Grand, Detroit