John Fulljames on reimagining Carmen for Scottish Opera: 'the story is really problematic for us today'

Set in Spain in the mid-1970s, just as the country is emerging from decades of Franco’s dictatorship, this new production of Bizet’s Carmen will invite audiences to look at the opera’s themes in an entirely new light, writes David Kettle

“I don’t think domestic violence and toxic police cultures are really things we want to laugh about. They’re real problems, things we want to engage with, but to deal with seriously.”

Director John Fulljames has a point. And when you put it like that, some of the themes in Bizet’s Carmen are, well, problematic at the very least. And it’s precisely those ideas that Fulljames is setting out to tackle in what promises to be quite a radical overhaul of the opera in his new production for Scottish Opera.

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Though it has to be said, Carmen has had plenty of reimaginings already, which have all helped cement its position as one of the best-known and best-loved operatic works in the repertoire. “We all know the famous bits,” agrees Fulljames. “And we know it through its adaptations – whether that’s the many ballet incarnations, or even a musical like Carmen Jones.”

Carmen director John Fulljames in rehearsals PIC: Sally JubbCarmen director John Fulljames in rehearsals PIC: Sally Jubb
Carmen director John Fulljames in rehearsals PIC: Sally Jubb

But it wasn’t always quite as popular. Carmen came in for a notorious critical mauling following its 1875 Paris premiere – though the outrage back then was more to do with its low-life characters, sordid storylines, even women puffing on cigarettes. For Fulljames, those are symptoms of the opera straddling two different stylistic worlds. “The story is a fundamentally dark one, about a murder that comes out of a very toxic culture in what’s effectively the police force in Spain. But the opera is complex, because it tries to put that story on stage within the conventions of an opéra comique – so the piece combines humour and light music.”

For a 21st-century audience, however, there might be different questions generated by Carmen’s tale of an obsessive love affair between the title character and the squaddie Don José, and its murderous outcome. The main questions being: what’s really going on here, and who’s telling us about it? “In the original novella by Prosper Mérimée, the murderer is on death row relating his version of events, so we’re hearing the story from the perspective of the killer,” says Fulljames. “I think it’s really important we see the opera in that context. So we’ve drawn on the genre of crime drama, which itself was just being born at around the same time in the 19th century.”

To achieve that, Fulljames has brought in a new English version of the libretto by Christopher Cowell. “It includes some new dialogues, which are conversations between an investigator and Don José, who’s in prison and talking the investigator through his story.”

His new setting for the opera – Spain in the mid-1970s, just emerging from decades of Franco’s dictatorship – only intensifies the production’s contemporary resonances. “One interpretation of Carmen is that she’s a freedom fighter,” says Fulljames, “struggling for domestic freedom in her relationships as well as political freedom. And the police represent the state, as well as a kind of personal corruption in their abuses of power.”

The resonances with events of recent years sound like they’ll be inescapable. But does this mean throwing out everything we know and love about Carmen? Not at all, says the director. “I feel a responsibility to the opera, of course. The bullfighter Escamillo will look like a bullfighter, and Carmen will have her iconic red dress. These are essential ingredients, but I think we should challenge ourselves to think about them in new ways.”

Fulljames took a similarly questioning approach with John Adams’s Nixon in China with Scottish Opera in early 2020, reimagined as a meditation on history, reputation and legacy. Does he feel this reconsideration of classical works is his trademark? “It depends on the piece. The point about Carmen is its extraordinary, emotionally powerful music – it’s an overwhelming experience in the theatre, and that’s why we keep performing it. But the story is really problematic for us today. We have to ask: whose stories do we want to put on stage? And how do we want to tell those stories? We’ll use the opera’s wonderful music to explore the story in a way that’s interesting, relevant and meaningful for us today.”

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Scottish Opera’s new production of Carmen opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 12 May, with further performances in Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, see

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