May 20 2009 12:00 AM

Michigan Opera Theatre sharpens up an old aphrodisiac


Most one-night stands aren’t worth this much heavy lifting, but most women aren’t Carmen.

Thursday, the Michigan Opera Theatre will roll the cast, sets, costumes and orchestra for its critically acclaimed “Carmen” down I-96 into East Lansing for one night of grand opera, with nothing but seduction in mind.

“Carmen” has been opera’s most reliable arouser for decades, but to perk things up, the MOT moved Georges Bizet’s opera from 19th-century to mid-20th-century Spain, so costume designer Constance Hoffman could wrap the young cast in more stylish, sexier clothes.

Tenor William Joyner finds the soldier costumes “rather Germanic.”

“I hesitate to say Nazi, but that’s what they look like,” he said wryly.

Joyner plays Don Jose, who falls hard for Carmen but isn’t happy about becoming a notch on her belt. Sultry mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen, a match for Joyner in height as well as uvula force, will play Carmen.

If there’s a hint of S&M in the production’s liberal use of lace and leather, so what? Joyner’s jackboots jack up the story’s erotic charge.

Besides, weren’t the Germans involved in the Spanish Civil War?

“I don’t have a big problem with it, because the story is pretty universal,” Joyner said. “It’s just a story of people who shouldn’t have gotten together in the first place.”

With the fetish gear or without, love has always been a bruising business in “Carmen.”

When Carmen penetrates Don Jose’s mind, war breaks out. Duty resists desire and order fights chaos.

“She’s creepy, and she’s sexy,” Joyner said of Carmen. “I don’t know what to do with her. I know I should stay away but I can’t.”

Soul mates these two are not. When they sing to each other, their duets sound like duels.

Count on “Carmen,” both the opera and the character, to rile people up. In 1907, six years after the opera’s premiere, several people were killed in ticket riots outside a theater in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Because of the salacious subject matter, French newspapers called for a ban on admission to minors.

This is Joyner’s 17th turn as Don Jose, and he’s still fascinated with the character.

“It’s too easy to see him as a mama’s boy who gets pushed around by the women in his life,” Joyner said.

Early versions of “Carmen” contained spoken dialogue that revealed a lot more of Don Jose’s background. The MOT production, like most modern “Carmens,” uses sung recitatives rather than speech, so a lot of that information is lost. Still, Joyner keeps that information in his mind, like period underwear the audience will never see. “He’s a much more complex character than we see in the recitative version, and it’s my job to try and bring that out,” Joyner said.

For example, Don Jose was pressed into the army after killing a gambler for cheating, so he’s not where he wants to be. He’s also from northern Spain, and isn’t used to hot-blooded types like Carmen.

Dangerous games with gypsy girls have taken Joyner, too, a long way from his roots. He grew up in Raleigh, N.C. “Episcopalians in Raleigh in the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t sing out very much,” he said.

But at 8 years old, Joyner belted out his hymns in church without shame. “Somehow, I put a connection together,” he said. “I’m singing. People are turning around and looking. I kind of like that.”

At 15, he made his dad sit through all of “Tannhauser” at the Metropolitan Opera, “even though he wanted to leave after the first act.”

After a sour year on French horn, Joyner joined a school choir and became hooked on song.

By now, Joyner, 47, has built up a huge repertoire, including three world premiere operas. In 1999, he premiered “What Next,” modernist Elliott Carter’s bizarre tale of strangers caught up in an auto accident. Two days after Joyner leaves East Lansing, he flies to England to rehearse “Prima Donna,” a world premiere opera by pop singer/ songwriter Rufus Wainwright. After two weeks of rehearsal in Leeds, the show will premiere at the Manchester International Festival.

Joyner loves the travel but isn’t crazy about spending time away from his wife and two young daughters back home in Connecticut.

Even after long hours of wrestling with Carmen, he manages to stay in touch with his family. “Last night I got to video chat with my daughter for half an hour — only because she finished her homework,” he said. “It’s a fantastic job, but a strange way of life.”


Michigan Opera Theatre 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 21 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $35-78 1-800-WHARTON
841-B Timberlane Street East Lansing, MI 48823 Email: Web: