FARGO — David Hamilton doesn’t mince words when talking about Hilary Ginther’s star turn in the title role of Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s production of “Carmen” this weekend.
“She's got the sultry vixen thing down really well,” he says.
The general director of the company means it as a compliment as Georges Bizet’s classic focuses on the beguiling power the cigarette girl holds over men.
Carmen is not just another pretty face, however, and Ginther says the role is more physical than the old-fashioned park-and-bark leading ladies in opera.
“Carmen is the most exhausting and draining role I’ve been given the responsibility to perform," she says. "You have to have confidence to play Carmen because she sucks the air out of the room when she walks in. You go in with 150 percent confidence.”
The mezzo-soprano first played the part 12 years ago in college, but this is her first stab at it as a professional singer.
Just as Ginther has grown as an actor, the role has evolved. In this production, Director Maria Todaro uses the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s as a backdrop and transforms the lead from flirty gypsy to a femme fatale freedom fighter.
Ginther plays the part as a strong woman who knows what she wants, whereas others have played her as a bewitching tease.
(Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know how the tragic opera ends, skip the next paragraph.)
“To me, it makes sense the way we do it now,” the singer says. “She’s not the villain. When I did it in college and she got killed at the end, people cheered and I thought, ‘What the hell?’”
Ginther says she only needs to look to Todaro to see how to play the part.
“She’s come in with so much fire and spirit for what she does,” she says of her director. “She kind of is Carmen in her essence. I am able to present a strong character being inspired by her.”
“There’s kind of a feminist bent to this production because the women are very strong,” Hamilton says.
Having a female director is a first he can remember in FM Opera’s history, but it won’t be the last as he says the number of women directing and conducting operas is on the rise.
Similarly, he’s seen Ginther’s star continue to ascend since the singer was in one of FM Opera's earliest Young Artist Programs, which brings in emerging voices to develop their talents while working with directors, other performers and the public.
When Hamilton was looking to cast Carmen, he reached out to Ginther to see if she was interested in the part. She jumped at not only the role, but the opportunity to come back to Fargo-Moorhead.
“I really enjoyed the art scene here,” she says. “I had no idea what I was getting into, but it gave me a lot of confidence, being here.”
Hamilton says Ginther’s return is a good indication of the success of the unique program.
“It speaks highly of the quality we are able to attract to our Young Artist Program,” he says.
Just as the program helps build up young performers, Hamilton says “Carmen” is a great opera for those who have never been to see one — in part because many of the numbers, like “Toreador Song,” Carmen’s signature habanera and the opera’s prelude, have been incorporated into pop culture.
“This is hands down the best first opera to come see,” he says. “There are so many tunes people will know, the plot is gripping and like every good tragedy, there is some comic relief.”
“There’s not a boring moment in the score, start to finish,” Ginther says.
On Sunday, April 14, the day after “Carmen” ends, she heads off to Fort Worth, Texas, to perform in the world premiere of “Companionship” by Rachel Peters. Later this year she will play another strong female fighter, Joan of Arc.
Still, she’s already looking forward to playing Carmen again.
“It’s so acting-based, the charisma you exude,” she says. “I know as soon as the role closes I can’t wait to do it again.”
If you go
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 12, and Saturday, April 13
Where: Festival Concert Hall, Reineke Fine Arts Center, North Dakota State University
Info: Tickets range from $40 to $80; https://www.fmopera.org