When Sarah Heltzel debuted in the title role in the opera “Carmen,” she set up unrealistic expectations for herself.
“The first time I did it, I felt an incredible responsibility thinking, ‘How can I be the sexiest woman in the world?’ which is what Carmen is supposed to be,” the mezzo-soprano recalled. “I felt the weight of that.”
Her fears were put to rest by a director friend who simply told her, “Sarah, you are enough.”
“That felt revolutionary to me,” Heltzel said. “I went and I listened to and I watched several different productions of ‘Carmen’ and what stood out to me is that each Carmen is different. It’s whatever that person is bringing to the role and she’s not a stereotype – she can only be embodied differently by whoever’s playing her.
“It’s liberating,” she added.
Heltzel is taking on the role for the third time, in coincidentally her third time performing with Wichita Grand Opera, in a performance Saturday.
Since she first played the role, as a young artist with the Seattle Opera, she has learned to become more comfortable in the skin of Carmen, a fiery Gypsy who seduces a naïve soldier, Don Jose.
“It’s always going to come down to who the actor is who’s going to portray it,” Heltzel said. “Even if the director has a specific idea, how that plays out in one person’s skin and skills and psyche is going to be completely different than another actor trying out the same idea. It’s always going to be incredibly individual.”
The tenor playing opposite her, Michael Wade Lee, will be playing Don Jose for the 19th time, including three straight years of three different performers a year.
He’s sung the role in English, French and even with an Irish accent, and played the part of the soldier in very different manners to fit the needs of the production and the director.
“Every one of them was a different way and every one of them killed Carmen in a different way. It never gets boring after 19 different productions,” Lee said. “To keep the opera fresh and alive, there’s always a different way to portray Don Jose as a bull or sad or lonely or introverted or loud or depressed.”
Lee, in his second appearance with Wichita Grand Opera, said he relies on variety to keep Don Jose alive for himself.
“There’s so many ways to play these characters, and when you do it so many times, sometimes you just have to find a new way to put a twist on it and gives life to it and leaves it fresh,” Lee said. “You want to add your own spin or originality to it if you can.”
The Wichita Grand Opera production, directed by Shayna Leahy, is more traditional in its staging, Heltzel and Lee said, with its music in French and its spoken dialogue in English.
The cast also includes Michael Nansel, Hanna Brammer, Andrew Hernandez, Charles, Andra Erbar, Kathryn Frady, Dustin Peterson and Mirko D’Angelo.
It is the first Wichita Grand Opera production under new artistic director Alan Held, a world-renowned performer who succeeds Parvan Bakardiev.
Georges Bizet’s score is one of the most recognizable in opera, which makes “Carmen” one of the most performed and most popular in the art form.
It has also been called one of the most accessible of all operas, and Heltzel and Lee agree.
“It has so many elements that are incredibly attractive,” including wonderful chorus scenes and a children’s portion, Heltzel said. “It has love and violence and intrigue and suspense and all of those things that are woven into it, along with incredibly memorable, beautiful tunes that so many people recognize right of the bat.”
Lee said that, compared to most other operas, “Carmen” is more realistic.
“It’s not about gods or royalty or a fairy tale. It’s about human beings with real flaws and emotions and real human actions and jealousies and insecurities, and all of those are portrayed in the music and the dialogue,” he said. “It’s people you can relate to.
“People in this opera I can relate to and understand and get inside the skin of, and hopefully share that experience with the audience,” Lee added.
“Carmen” is the first time that Heltzel and Lee have worked together, and they said the initial moments of getting to know each other as performers is usually rushed, especially if they have to have romantic scenes.
But the two are getting to know each other. They’re both staying at the same Wichita hotel, and Lee and his wife usually show up for breakfast about the same time as Heltzel does. She’s regaled them with stories about her husband and child, including several videos on her phone of the baby.
“You develop a trust and an understanding and you’re always trying to communicate to the other person,” Lee said.
He describes himself as “really, really anti-violence in my real life,” and is always concerned that his onstage violence might injure his co-star.
“You want to understand you’re doing something right and not hurting the other person,” he said.
The two quickly developed a rapport, Heltzel said, in their roles.
Sharing music with someone else is a very personal thing,” she said.
‘Carmen’ by Wichita Grand Opera
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, April 27
Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas