Janara Kellerman's dream is about to come true -- in a way she never imagined.
Performing on the Paramount Theatre stage has been her dream since her West Side Delegation show choir days at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School in the early 1990s.
"It is amazing to come back, especially now that the Paramount has reopened," she says during a recent costume-fitting at Coe College. "I would have never dreamed I'd be back singing 'Carmen' at the Paramount. ... One of my high school friends' daughter is in the children's chorus, so it's wonderful -- really, really wonderful."
Kellerman, a mezzo-soprano, will be performing the fiery lead role when the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre mounts the full-scale production Jan. 17 and 19 on the Paramount stage. It's the tale of an intoxicating gypsy who uses her wild ways to tame love -- and a couple of dashing lovers. Sparks fly furiously, as such triangles seldom end well.
"(Carmen) is just a fantastic, fun, sassy, intelligent gypsy (who) knows what to use and when to use it to get what she wants," says Kellerman, 37, a 1993 Jefferson grad who now lives on Manhattan's upper west side.
"The main theme of 'Carmen' is always freedom -- liberty -- anything that has to do with fighting oppression from the ruling (class), the soldiers, the oppressors," Kellerman says. "This director is doing a nice theme to show the discrimination against the gypsies. The thought of prison, the thought of being tied down is the end for her. It's all about keeping herself free."
The action takes place in Spain in 1820, but is performed in French composer Georges Bizet's native tongue. It's full of bullfights, crimes of passion and vocal sparring, set against a backdrop of disgruntled factory workers, soldiers, smugglers and unrequited love.
The music is instantly recognizable, from Carmen's seductive "Habanera" to bullfighter Escamillo's rousing "Toreador Song."
Both have been used in movies and commercials, and the "Habanera" has even made its way onto "Sesame Street," Kellerman says with a laugh. The opera, itself, has been remade and retold in many lands in many ways, including "Carmen Jones" on Broadway in 1943 and Robert Townsend's 2001 film "Carmen: A Hip Hopera," starring Beyonce Knowles.
Baritone Philip Torre -- who played Marcello so brilliantly in last year's Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre production of "La Boheme" -- is returning as the dashing matador Escamillo, who has achieved the blood sport's highest level. Torre, 43, of Chicago, says the music sits comfortably in his vocal range, and he's watched a lot of bullfighting movies to prepare for his first time performing the coveted role.
The matador's task is the most dangerous, he says.
"All the other stages of the bullfight prepare the bull for the matador to go out and make the final kill. ... It's horrible, I think -- personally speaking -- what they do to these poor animals," he says. "The matador goes out with a sword that he usually keeps under his cape, and he stands head-to-head with the bull, taunts the bull with his cape and charges the bull straight-on. If he places the sword correctly, it's an instant kill. If he doesn't, it could be an instant kill (of him)."
Escamillo is the rock star of his day, lauded with cheers and acclaim wherever he goes. With fame comes women swooning at his feet in every city. And then he meets Carmen, who catches his eye and rocks his world.
She also has caught the eye of the volatile military officer Don Jose, and eventually leads him astray.
"Someone put it very well yesterday during the cast meeting -- the opera easily could have been called 'Don Jose' instead of 'Carmen,' " says tenor Alok Kumar, 38, of New York City, who is singing that leading role.
"The composers and the authors show the piece through a lens that is more gypsy-centric, and romanticize that lifestyle, which tips the scales in favor of Carmen. While she goes through a steady progression in the opera, he goes through a regression," Kumar says of Don Jose.
By toying with him, Carmen "pushes his buttons," tapping into his "well of darkness," Kumar says, "until his demons get the better of him."
"The role is the quintessential tenor part," running a range of emotions, from sweetness to despair, Kumar says. "As he starts to get more connected to misery that is Don Jose, the vocalism becomes more involved. It becomes fuller, becomes more dramatic, becomes higher and the orchestration thickens underneath it. There's just more you have to give.”
He’s enjoying that challenge. It’s his first time tackling the role -- and says he's thrilled to be making that debut in Cedar Rapids.
"I was told I was very, very smart to choose Cedar Rapids Opera to do a role for the first time -- especially this role -- because the product is fantastic. It's not like you're up doing a low-budget presentation of something -- it's a full artistic package.
"Plus you have in Daniel (Kleinknecht), a conductor who is a singer's conductor. ... His energy precedes him. He's incredibly giving and very generous, and a true collaborator," Kumar says, adding the same is true for stage director William Ferrara from the University of Oklahoma. "I feel really safe, I feel really good."
Which is more than Don Jose can say.
--- Sung in French, with English supertitles; featuring Orchestra Iowa; free discussions 1 hour before curtain, with stage director William Ferrara on Jan. 17 in the Paramount's Encore Lounge and with Jim Leach on Jan. 19 in the Opus Concert Cafe; Jan. 19 matinee broadcast live on Iowa Public Radio
--- Young Artists Fundraiser: Gypsy Brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 19, Paramount's Encore Lounge; music by the opera company's Young Artists, food from Zins, Bloody Marys and mimosa; $50, (319) 365-7401, email firstname.lastname@example.org or online Cr-opera.org
--- Coe Thursday Forum: 8:45 to 11:30 a.m. Jan. 16, Kesler Lecture Hall, Hickok Hall, Coe College, Cedar Rapids; Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre's artistic team discusses the building process for "Carmen," from casting to costuming; $12 adults, call Linda Givvin, (319) 399-8619
--- Young Artists Program: "Billy Goats Gruff," 10:30 a.m. Saturday (1/11), Whipple Auditorium, Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE; free; touring Cedar Rapids elementary schools in January