An interview with Michael Mayes of Kentucky Opera's Carmen [Music]

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Baritone Michael Mayes plays the bullfighter who steals away the gypsy Carmen from her jealous lover. He carved out some time from a busy rehearsal schedule to answer some questions before this Friday's opening night. You can follow Michael on Twitter.com @mazerthehazer.

Tell me a bit about playing the bullfighter Escamillo: When preparing for the role, what is the aspect that you found to be the best guide into your performance?

The desire to be in front of large crowds of people was something that was in me from a very early age. It's not just the adulation that I've craved, but the thrill of attempting to engage thousands of people at once, and the risk of being at their mercy. As high as you can get after an incredible performance (read bullfight), the risk of falling flat on your face is ever present, and its treading that tight rope that thrills me and keeps me coming back to the stage gig after gig. It's the same with bullfighters… that ever-present, often deadly risk, offset by the heights of glory and success.

There's a lot of dash and swagger there, but did you pinpoint some other trait that you could explore?

In portraying Escamillo, as many of the characters in Carmen, one can run the risk of lapsing into caricature and even buffoonery. I was acutely cognizant of this fact when I began to reexamine my portrayal for this edgier, slimmed down, and in my opinion, more effective production. Escamillo is only in a few scenes, they are some of the most exciting and engaging scenes in the opera -- so however I approach him, I have to do so very clearly and efficiently. The big tune [Toreador Song], everybody knows, and it's basically a narrative, so I approach it as a story to impress the crowd at the tavern, however…it soon becomes apparent that Escamillo is most fascinated by those that don't immediately hurl themselves at him with abandon.

Carmen is nonplussed by his preening and bravura, and the less impressed she is, the harder he tries to get her to notice him, until, in his mind there is no one else in the room, and the entire fiasco is for her benefit alone. Having Escamillo be immediately drawn to Carmen in such a direct way, without the bullshit that hangs around her and Jose's relationship allows the audience to realize that Escamillo truly is the real match and appropriate mate for Carmen, and the folly of her dalliance with Jose.

Another unusual moment, that I don't think that I've ever seen done in a production of Carmen, occurs in the brief love duet between Carmen and Escamillo just before the bullfight and subsequent murder of Carmen at Jose's hands. They profess their love to each other, explicitly and publicly (which is something that never happens between her and Jose) and just before Escamillo dashes off to meet the bull in the ring, Carmen reaches up and adjusts Escamillo's costume; it's a very small thing, and extremely brief, but in an opera with so much anger, strife, and bitterness -- to see a moment between two people that's genuinely sweet adds a dimension to the characters that I find to be charming. This moment of bliss between two so obviously in love makes the subsequent destruction of love and life all the more heart wrenching.

You're from Texas, so I expect you've been near a few bulls -- been chased by any?

There is a joke in there about sexual education in the State of Texas, animal husbandry, and jealous bulls that I am just going to pass on, but I do so against my usual instinct. Instead, I offer this: My uncle had a bull named J.R. (yes.. like THAT J.R.) on his place that was an absolute son of a bitch. Between the fence at the edge of the yard, and the pond where we could go fishing was about 100 yards of open pasture. I swear he could smell the fear on a 10-year-old from a mile away, and as soon as we'd hop the fence and head for the pond, he'd appear out of thin air, snorting and bellowing like a sign of the apocalypse and we'd scatter... None of us ever got hooked, but I can attest that there were more varieties of patty in that pasture than just cow...

Tell me about both your Texapolitan Opera Roadshow podcast and how it got started -- what do you hope to convey with it?

The motto of The Texapolitan Opera Roadshow is, "Opera without the pipe and bow tie." Opera, if it continues to solely be the domain of the super-rich and cultural elite, is doomed to fail. The main goal of my podcast is to drag opera by its hair through the heavy fog that surrounds the ivory tower into which it's been so ridiculously installed by the culture in our country, and allow the public to see what its really like behind the curtain (the opposite of Opera News). I am always surprised, as are many people, by the number of opera singers who come from humble beginnings. The dichotomy that exists between the wealthy opera patron and the performer from inauspicious beginnings has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Why shouldn't the people from whom we all come have the same appreciation for our art for as we do? I want to allow opera fans and non-opera fans alike to see what the people behind this amazing art form are like, and in so doing, invest them in the personalities behind these artists, so that when they come to the theater, they do so with a new and fresh perspective, and are more invested and engaged than they would have otherwise been had they walked in cold. I've always said that I don't sing opera because I want to get rich and famous. I sing, so that I can be around some of the most interesting and exciting people in the world and create with them, something that is special and moves people.

How does the podcast and other social media methods relate to the way you think performers should be promoting their art form?

They are an excellent outgrowth of the explosion of social media. Singers now have to take active roles in their own promotion, not just for the sake of their own careers, but for the survival of the art form. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Google +, all of these things are free and those singers who don't see how important they are in an age driven by social media and rapidly shifting cultural trends are not fully realizing the potential they have to affect a massive audience.

Considering some of the woes our city has faced with its orchestra, what do you think is the best path for the arts to stay relevant and vibrant within their communities?

Stay on the cutting edge and resist the urge to retreat, in the face of difficult economic times, to the safe old war horses of the standard rep. Ft. Worth opera is an excellent example of a company that has refused to allow financial restraints to curb their desire to do exciting cutting edge work that takes on current social issues in an unflinching and potent manner. Their daring was rewarded with rave reviews, and an even stronger subscriber base and patron support.

What David Roth is doing here in Louisville is truly exciting. He has a dynamic vision for where the opera company fits into the cultural landscape of this community, and is out there bravely fighting for this organization in a way that has inspired admiration among the members of the company here, and throughout the country.

David brought in brilliant director, Kristine McIntyre, who along with willing accomplice and collaborator, Maestro Joe Mechavich, took the cutting shears to the entr'actes [musical interludes between acts] and superfluous repetition, reverted to the spoken dialogue, and infused the tired old Carmen with an energy, intensity, and dramatic thrust that the longer, more laborious version really can't sustain. It's a risky proposition to mess with the Carmen that many of the patrons have grown to love, but one that I know will pay off and is indicative of the exciting changes that have taken place since David has taken the helm. I look forward to seeing where he will go next.

The Barihunks blog is another project you're involved with. The tagline is pretty straightforward: "The Sexiest Baritone Hunks from Opera." I here there's a pin-up calendar in the works.

The guys over there are doing a great service to us. Anytime we can get someone talking about opera, regardless of the context, is an accomplishment worthy of praise.

Will you be shooting your Barihunks calendar photo in Louisville? Most importantly, will horses and/or bourbon figure into the composition?

I am doing the shoot here, though the location is to be determined. Horses might be involved, and bourbon will definitely be a factor, whether prominently featured, or administered as a fortification against my own inhibitions about public displays of partial nudity.

What's next for you after Carmen?

I leave here and travel down to Shreveport to sing Danilo in the Merry Widow, then I come back this direction and reprise my role as in I Pagliacci at Nashville Opera. Then 'm off to Eugene, Oregon to toss my cape once again as Escamillo. The role I've been waiting almost a decade to play, Joseph De Rocher in Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie at Tulsa Opera. It's an incredibly powerful piece of theater, and a role that will really push my boundaries personally and professionally. These kinds of roles are dreams for baritones like me, and I can hardly wait to sink my teeth into it.

***

Kentucky Opera performs Carmen this Friday, September 23 at 8PM, as well as a matinee performance on Sunday, September 25 at 2PM. Due to high demand, a third performance has been added on Friday, September 30 at 8PM. All shows are at the Brown Theater, 315 W. Broadway. Single tickets ($35-78) are still available online  or by calling 502.584.7777.

Kentucky Opera reached an agreement with the Louisville Federation of Musicians Local 11-637 (Local 11-637) to play for the Brown-Forman 2011/12 Season opening performances of Carmen. Dancers from Flamenco Louisville will also be featured in this production.

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