There is nothing like "Carmen." She's one of the most enigmatic and dynamic female characters written for the opera - or any stage. A sultry and fiercely independent woman, she seduces men with a look and leaves trouble in her wake.
"She loves life more than anything," says Elizabeth Batton, who will sing the title role for Opera Idaho's production this weekend. "She falls in love, she falls out of love, and all she just wants is to be happy."
Carmen's life and loves make for one of the most dynamic operas in the repertoire, and one that will bring Opera Idaho back to the Morrison Center stage at Boise State after 5 1/2 years.
During the past five seasons, the company has been at the Egyptian Theatre, where it has been honing and building its performance level. Now, thanks to support from the Morrison Endowment Foundation, it will be on the much larger stage, a space that will allow this story to be told the way it should, says Opera Idaho executive director Mark Junkert.
"This is an opera we simply couldn't do at the Egyptian," he says. "There are more than 80 chorus members and children, nine principals and four scene changes. It's going to look great."
The last time Opera Idaho did "Carmen" was 2005.
At its core, it's about the ultimate love triangle. She's at the apex, with the strident soldier Don Jose (tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney) and the glamorous toreador Escamillo (baritone Kyu Won Han) on either side.
It's a story that is at once ancient and extremely contemporary, says director Benjamin Spierman, who directed Opera Idaho's "La Boheme" in 2001.
"You see it in the news every day," he says.
That's what makes it timeless - that and the most recognizable and hauntingly romantic scores in the canon, which was shocking in its day both for its music and its passionate characters.
Bizet wrote "Carmen" for the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1875. Though today it's considered his masterpiece, it was considered a flop at the time.
"He was doing something new with this opera," Spierman says. "It was a move toward realism. He was French but he blended Spanish rhythms and feeling, and there's some French operetta in there."
Its musical divergence and sexy story were just too much for the opera audiences of the day. Three months after its debut, Bizet died at age 36, never to see his work gain acceptance. Today it is one of the most performed and popular operas in the world.
Carmen, a gypsy, works at a Seville cigarette factory. She's a dynamic, fearless beauty who drives men - and a few women - a bit mad.
After she gets into a fight with another woman at the factory, she is arrested and escorted to prison by Don Jose, who becomes captivated by Carmen's beauty.
She seduces him and he sets her free, and then he is sent to prison for it, giving up the beautiful and sweet Micaela, sung by Eleni Calenos, who sang the title roles in "Madame Butterfly" in 2012.
While Don Jose is in prison, Carmen instantly falls in love with the bullfighter Escamillo, and they are a perfect match.
"They both live in the now," Batton says. "He gives her more of what she needs."
But, of course, their love is not meant to be.
When Don Jose gets out of prison, he begs Carmen to take him back. She rejects him, and when he learns of her relationship with Escamillo - well, there is a tragic ending.
Carmen's sultry and fiercely independent character is at the center of it all, making her one of the juiciest and most challenging roles in opera, and one that Batton relishes.
"The more I perform the role, the more I understand her," she says. "She is - except in her gypsy smuggling ways - honest about her dealings. She wears her emotions on her sleeve and says what she feels."
Don Jose is hot-headed and desperate, Gwaltney says.
"He is not a cool cucumber," he says. "He's a man under stress who is willing to act on his anger, but Carmen is pretty consistent. She says what she means from the beginning: 'If you love me, I won't love you. But if I love you and you don't love me - you better look out.' "
That is Don Jose's undoing.