Carmen is all about Carmen. That may seem obvious; most operas, of course, center on one lead character. But the gypsy Carmen towers over Bizet’s masterpiece in a way that surpasses most other operas’ eponymous heroes or heroines. She casts a giant shadow, extending beyond this opera and even beyond the genre itself to become part of our collective imagination. For a mezzosoprano, there’s no greater vehicle than Carmen, which can elevate a diva’s career to the absolute highest ranks. On New Year’s Eve, Elīna Garanča will add her name to a pantheon of Met mezzos who have inhabited the role, including Risë Stevens, Shirley Verrett, and Marilyn Horne, among many others.

“I am so excited to be doing a new production of Carmen at the Met,” Garanča says. The Latvian mezzo, who has triumphed in Rossini operas here over the past two seasons, has previously portrayed Bizet’s heroine in revivals in her native Riga and in Rome. Just this past October, she won great acclaim singing the part at London’s Royal Opera House—opposite Roberto Alagna, a veteran in the role of Carmen’s lover and nemesis, Don José, who will also be her co-star at the Met. With the experience of these performances under her belt, Garanča feels well prepared for her Met role debut. “You don’t get to develop productions of Carmen from scratch very often,” she says, “so I’m really looking forward to exploring the character further.”

This journey will be led by Olivier Award-winning theater and film director Richard Eyre, who makes his Met debut with the staging. Rob Howell designs the sets and costumes, the lighting is by Peter Mumford. The acclaimed young choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is creating a number of dances for the production. Up-and-coming maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin also makes his company debut, leading a cast that also includes Barbara Frittoli as Micaela and Mariusz Kwiecien as Escamillo. Together they will bring to life a work with which every audience member will surely have at least some familiarity.

“The biggest challenge with Carmen is that everybody knows it,” director Eyre says. “And even if they don’t, they think they do. It’s like a fable: people’s knowledge of it actually precedes seeing the opera.” A lesser work might be overwhelmed by such popularity, but Carmen—character and opera— are powerful enough to be up to the challenge. Indeed, what attracts Garanča to the role is Carmen’s unyielding strength and determination. “Carmen is defined by her unwillingness to settle,” she says. “She is constantly searching for something and never satisfied. It may be sex, or more broadly, approval by men. It could also just be zest for life. And in that she is uncompromising.”

This “zest for life” leaves Carmen in a near-constant state of violent confrontation with her surroundings. She is a gypsy, an outsider, but according to Eyre, her defiant ways and rampant sexuality make her an outsider within the gypsy community too. “Her sexuality is a lifeforce, it’s a defining force,” the director explains. “Carmen is about sex, violence, and racism—and its corollary: freedom.” Alagna agrees: “Carmen is attracted to the violence in José’s psychology, and to his violent history,” he says. “She needs a man who’s ready to kill for her and rescue her from the social prisons she lives in.” Like Eyre, Alagna believes that the longing for freedom is central to the opera. “When Carmen sings of ‘la liberté’ to José”—first in a solo and again in the finale to Act II—“she is also tasting the possibility of freedom for herself.”

The themes Bizet and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy consider in this opera are powerful and confrontational—and Eyre’s aim is to address them head-on. The director has spoken of his mission to reassess great works of the theater, including the Shakespeare plays he has staged, when they have grown overly familiar to audiences. “I hope,” he says about his new Carmen, “that the audience will come away shocked and awed, because I think that a good production of this opera should be both shocking and awesome—but also touching.” The goal, then, is to engage the audience a new, deeper way. “Hopefully my production will make people look afresh at Carmen. That should be the job of any new production of any opera: you hold it up to the audience to examine and they find something new in a familiar piece. I hope to subvert people’s familiarity—not gratuitously, just to say it’s different, but because it might deepen their appreciation of a well-loved friend.”

Maestro Nézet-Séguin agrees with the director’s approach. “I’m not looking at this production in terms of, ‘Oh, we need to do something different,’” the conductor says. “We just want to make a real, true, significant Carmen, so that everything we do musically, as well as on the stage, has something completely organic about it. To refresh a piece,” he adds, “one has to put oneself into the mindset of the first audience: what was shocking about it, what was so beautiful about it? What I like about Carmen is that she’s not black or white, not good or bad. The role is not really a mezzo and not a soprano either. There’s this gray area. And I think that’s a metaphor of who she is as a woman. She is an immensely complex character.”

The character’s many dimensions and her familiarity to the world at large could be daunting for a young singer. But Garanča relishes the opportunity. “It’s a challenge for me as a performer to make this role my own,” she says. “Carmen’s arias are so well-known, so it takes work to make them special. But I love a challenge!” —William Berger

Carmen opens on December 31 and will be seen live in HD on January 16. Last season’s HD presentation of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, starring Elīna Garanča, will be available on DVD in the Met Opera Shop on January 12.

This feature was first published online in December 2009 and in the Met's Playbill in January 2010.