Meet the cast and creative teams behind Opera Holland Park’s 2022 season. Over the coming weeks, we’ll introduce our singers, directors, conductors and crews at the heart of the productions this summer.
To mark International Women’s Day 2022, in today’s Spotlight interview we speak to mezzo-soprano Kezia Bienek, who is taking the title role in Carmen. We discuss the feminist potential of Carmen, both as a character and an opera, as well as the importance of working with women and the future for women in opera.
Why is Carmen a dream role for you?
I feel a real affinity with her. She has agency. She keeps saying no. She’s fearless but not deluded. In the novella she’s always laughing, and I think people warm to her easily despite her sarcasm and single-mindedness. I love the way she’s a shapeshifter and hustler. I imagine she’s able to feel confident in any situation. What a joy, and challenge, to get to be her for a few months!
What aspects of your role are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about being immersed in this sublime music for three months. I’m also looking forward to exploring who Carmen is in this production and her relationship with others. Although iconic, I really want you to know and recognise her authentically for her qualities, not just as the swaggering vamp stereotype.
Which women in music do you look up to?
I can’t choose one but I really admire Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Shirley Verrett, Ann Hallenberg, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Maria Ewing and Nadine Benjamin, all for different reasons!
What are you looking forward to about working on Carmen with a female director?
To be honest, I look forward to working with a female director on any project. But I think especially now, as society is slowly waking up to the extent of male violence on women and girls, Carmen needs to be told by a woman. While every director has something valuable to say, there are nuances of the male gaze and structural domination that are invisible to someone who has not experienced them first-hand.
Do you think it’s possible to see Carmen, the character, as a feminist figure, or even create a production of Carmen with a feminist lens?
I think Carmen certainly has scope to be presented through a feminist lens. Although it’s bunched in with all the other operas that end up with a dead woman, we can use what Bizet has given us to shine a light on the reality of femicide. It’s a gendered crime, often involving overkill and stalking. It’s not romantic. And, of course, feminism is intersectional and personal. The power dynamics of Carmen are not one-dimensional. Gender, race and class are all at play in this piece.
(Spoiler!) In an interview with James, our CEO, when discussing Don José’s murder of Carmen, you really beautifully said ‘Let’s get rid of the idea of a ‘crime of passion’ – femicide is not about seeing red or losing control, it’s the ultimate act of control’. Could you tell us more about that?
To be honest that’s almost quoted word for word from the End Violence Against Women website. I’m not an expert in any of this and I’m always trying to raise my awareness of women’s issues. I do think there’s an element of ‘trauma porn’ in many operas. For example, we romanticise Madam Butterfly while she’s trafficked, abandoned, has her child taken and is ultimately driven to ending her life, all to the backdrop of some of the most emotive and beautiful music ever written. It’s confusing. But let’s be clear: killing someone because they don’t want to go out with you anymore is not romantic or passionate, it’s a brutal crime.
What do you see in the future for women, and female roles, in opera?
I see a bit of a struggle still. Many of the UK companies and festivals are still not providing platforms for talented female composers, directors and conductors, and ultimately the audiences are losing out. That being said, there are many wonderful initiatives developing, and I’m so proud to be part of the Opera Holland Park family, always looking forward and striving for representation.