Carmen in 1958 Cuba

By UM News

Carmen in 1958 Cuba

By UM News
UM's Ring Theatre collaborates with the Tectonic Theater Project to perform the classic opera with an Afro-Cuban twist.

George Bizet’s Carmen is one of the world’s most famous operas, with soaring arias and a feisty heroine who inspires passion in her fellow characters and audiences alike. The original femme fatale will come to life on the stage of the UM Jerry Herman Ring Theatre this week – but this Carmen offers a new take on a time-honored tale.

The production is set in Cuba in 1958, in the thick of the Cuban Revolution. The action unfolds as the fighting enters its fifth and final year. Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement are using the pirate “Rebel Radio” station to broadcast their messages within Cuba and across the world, and their small army of revolutionaries is engaged in intensive battles against the Cuban army.

Henry Fonte, professor of theatre arts and director of conservatory programs in the UM College of Arts and Sciences and producing artistic director of the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, said, “In the original, Carmen was a gypsy and very much outside of society. She was called a sorcerer. This Carmen is a contemporary sorceress: a Santeria practitioner. She’s also involved in smuggling and running guns. It’s quite a direct parallel.”

He added, “a great deal of the action takes place in and around a tobacco factory. What better place than 1958 Cuba?”

Grammy Award winner Arturo O’Farrill – pianist, composer and director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra – is musical director for the production. He has adapted Bizet’s much-loved score, infusing the new musical with Afro-Cuban rhythms and other Cuban music. Mixing jazz with Spanish and African influences, O’Farrill creates a uniquely Cuban sound. The score also includes mambo, rumba and other sizzling styles. A nine-piece Cuban-style band will accompany the performers.

The piece is a musical, and includes both songs and scenes. Moisés Kaufman, artistic director of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, wrote the new book and lyrics. Kaufman is also directing the show – which is collaboration between the Tectonic Theater Project and the University of Miami Department of Theatre Arts.

According to the Tectonic Theater Project website, the production is “a hybrid finding a vocabulary that allows for the African heritage of gypsies of Spain and the heritage of Africans in Cuba to find a new voice.”

Fonte said that the collaboration came about when he and David Williams, director of music for the UM Department of Theatre Arts, traveled to Cuba with Kaufman on a trip sponsored by the Theatre Communications Group, a networking organization for more than 700 theatres in America.

During the trip, aimed at exploring Cuban theatre, Kaufman mentioned that he was interested in adapting Carmen to a Cuban setting and Fonte immediately offered UM as the development venue. As soon as they returned home, they got to work, and just 18 months later – “a nanosecond in musical theatre development time,” Fonte said – the production is in rehearsals.

Kaufman has been in Miami for the past five weeks, working intensively with the cast and creative teams from both Tectonic and UM.

Supporting four professional actors from New York, the 14 members of the cast’s Ensemble are UM students, and each is playing a character in the production. Sophomore Gabriela Mancuso is playing the role of Micaela, the second female lead.

Fonte said her professors have arranged her schedule so she can rehearse with the professional cast during the afternoon, allowing her to practice her “duets and love scenes” with musical theatre veteran Peter Saide. “It is amazing what she and the rest of the student cast are learning every day,” he said, adding that there are a total of 13 guest artists on campus in conjunction with this production, including Kaufman, Saide, O’Farrill, award-winning choreographer Ronald K. Brown, and – directly from Broadway – Christina Sajous in the title role.

UM students are also assisting with production and stage management, working alongside professionals from Tectonic and several UM faculty. The UM faculty include: Lisa Dozier King (production management), James P. Birder (stage management), Andrea Bechert (set design), Michiko Kitayama-Skinner (costume design), Pablo Souki (production), Samantha Miller (technical direction), Megan Ayers (sound engineering), Steve Lambert (props), Lee Soroko (stage combat), and Maha McCain (hair and makeup).

Both Carmen fans and those who have never seen the classic opera will enjoy this novel take on one of opera’s most enduring dramas.

Audience members should expect “the Carmen story in a wildly exotic time and place with infectious music,” Fonte said.

Performances will take place at the University of Miami Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, 1312 Miller Drive, Coral Gables, on November 12-23, 2014. Shows start at 8:00 p.m. on November 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22. Shows start at 2:00 p.m. on November 15, 16, 22, 23.

Regular admission tickets are $25; student tickets are $10. To purchase tickets online, visit the Ring Theatre’s online box office site,