Like the beautiful girl who's also smart, funny and an all-star athlete, "Carmen" has all the right moves.

Georges Bizet's take on the salacious tale of a gypsy girl and her admirers is one of the most beloved operas of all time. The music has seeped into popular culture, from spoofs in "Looney Tunes" and advertisements to wide-ranging adaptations, like Beyoncé's 2001 "Carmen: A Hip Hopera." There's even a Muppet version of "Habanera," one of the show's most famous songs.

"It's so accessible, and everybody knows the tunes," said Katharine Goeldner, an Austria-based mezzo-soprano who is playing the title role in Madison Opera's production, set for Friday and Sunday, Nov. 8. "The character is so fascinating and the music is so great."

A Spanish opera sung in French, "Carmen" is a story of passion. Carmen works in a cigarette factory, seducing the men and fighting with the women. She meets a soldier, Don José, who is betrothed to Micaela, a shy girl from his hometown.

Don José and Carmen have a brief affair before she falls for a charismatic toreador (bullfighter), Escamillo. It's this love triangle, according to Madison Opera general manger Allan Naplan, that keeps "Carmen" relevant.

"Everyone likes the story of a bad girl," Naplan said. "That's fun, and the trouble that she gets in - we love to see this character whether it's in a catfight or her seduction of men. It's so readily familiar to us in pop culture."

The role of Carmen has been sung by dozens of divas, including Kiri Te Kanawa, Maria Callas and, in 2008, Russian mezzo Olga Borodina at the Metropolitan Opera.

"My favorite Carmen is Rita Hayworth," Goeldner said. "She did a movie called 'The Loves of Carmen,' and it's not music from the opera. It's the story, and she is so much fun because it's all about this joy of life, this joie de vivre.

"That's what I base my Carmen on as well," Goeldner added. "She's not vulgar. She's not the man-killer."

And while the opera is named for her, it's not only Carmen's story. Chorister Glen Siferd, a second bass who's sung with the Madison Opera chorus for nearly 30 years, said it's one of the most active stories for the chorus as well.

"You're integral to every act, you're not just background," he said. "You're actually involved in the action. You interact with the principals a lot."

"Carmen" can feel more like musical theater than opera at times, due to the spoken dialogue (taking the place of sung-through recitative) and verse-chorus song structure instead of drawn-out arias.

"What's not to like?" asked Julie Ottum, a soprano in her 11th season with Madison Opera. "It's a very exciting storyline. There's gypsies and bullfighters, flamenco dancers ... there's even fortunetellers. The cigarette girls will be fighting. There's a lot of drama, wonderful music. It is the opera that has the most complete set of everything going for it."

Ottum said operas can be hampered by confusing or archaic storylines, weaker music or a chorus that just comes out and sings (which she called "park and bark"). But "Carmen" is much more dynamic.

"One of the reasons it works so well as a first-time opera is it has all of these very familiar melodies," Ottum said. "It has the most music in it that non-opera-goers don't know that they know until they're there."

Madison Opera will use 238 people in its production, including two flamenco dancers, children from the Madison Youth Choirs, about 40 adult choristers, an orchestra of 54 and dozens of stage crew members.

To prepare his audience, Naplan has been leading Opera Up Close, a two-hour afternoon session full of anecdotes, history and conversations with the artistic team. It helps opera novices become familiar with each piece and allows long-time opera fans to ask questions of the leads.

Opera Up Close: The "Carmen" Preview, scheduled for this afternoon at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, went on a local tour to help build an audience.

"The first one was for Oakwood Village retirement center, so we were talking to people 80 years-plus," Naplan said. "Then that night, I was talking to kids who were 8, 9, 10 years old. And yet, 'Carmen' can speak to everyone."


What: Madison Opera presents "Carmen" by Georges Bizet

Where: Overture Hall, 201 State St.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8; Opera Up Close, Noon-2 p.m. today (in Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Lecture Hall)


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