Even if you've never seen the opera "Carmen," you've probably heard its music.
The sultry "Habanera," the lilting "Seguidilla," the jaunty "Toreador Song" — each perfumed with the melodies and rhythms of Spain by composer Georges Bizet — are well-known independently of the stage.
And is there a more famous role than the beautiful, volatile title character? Just her name calls up fiery passions and a beguiling rose in dark cascades of hair.
Wichita Grand Opera will present "Carmen" Saturday, re-creating the streets of Seville and the surrounding countryside in Century II Concert Hall. The performance features a strong cast of young opera stars, with Bizet's delicious music paced by internationally known conductor Steven Mercurio.
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Audrey Babcock will star as Carmen; her lover Don Jose — seduced and then betrayed — will be tenor-on-the-rise Richard Crawley, who has sung with San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera and others. (Crawley was recommended for the role by several prominent opera executives after tenor Marcello Giordani, originally scheduled to sing Don Jose, withdrew.)
"I enjoy Carmen more than anything," Babcock said in a phone interview during a break in rehearsals. "It's incredibly physical — you get to fight, you get to dance, you get to sing."
She's sung in 15 productions of "Carmen" but has known the music for years. "When I was a kid I played the 'Carmen' suites on the flute," Babcock said. "But it was only later that I realized what it was about."
Stage director James Marvel will help Babcock and the cast fully inhabit the characters they'll sing.
"Carmen remains the same person at the beginning of the opera as she is at the end," Marvel said.
"Don Jose, on the other hand, starts off as a relatively innocent young country boy from a small mountain town. We see him in Act One as a bright, young dapper guy who's trying to make good. Act Two comes around and we can see aspects of the jealousy coming out; he debates back and forth between love and duty.
"By the time Act Three comes around he has been taken over by jealousy and overwhelmed by this (gypsy) lifestyle which is foreign to him — wandering, smuggling, stealing."
Two other characters offset the leads — Micaela (Stacey Canterbury, Don Jose's country sweetheart who, in two lovely scenes, vows to bring him home; and Escamillo (David Lara), the bullfighter whose dashing indifference wins Carmen's heart. Other singers portray gypsy girls and soldiers.
Marvel says he'll present his own ideas about the story, and then guide the singers as they mold their characters over two-plus weeks of rehearsals.
Conductor Mercurio was scheduled to arrive in Wichita today to begin a week's polishing for Saturday's performance. He regularly conducts at the world's best-known opera houses. This summer he'll lead a tour by Sting and in December concerts by tenor Andrea Bocelli. "Carmen" will mark his Kansas debut.
"As a conductor, I will be there to help, support, direct emotionally and dramatically," Mercurio said. "There are so many ways musically — coloring and shaping — into this score; so many ways to make it work for the people in front of me.
"This is a masterpiece. We don't need to reinvent the wheel; we just need to get it right."
If you go
What: Bizet's opera presented by Wichita Grand Opera
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
How much: Tickets are $35, $58 and $85, discounts available.
For more information, visit www.selectaseat.com or call 316-262-8054.