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A&E | Vol 6, No. 3, January 19, 2006
(Healthcare Behind Bars)

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Queen of Hearts

by Sam Baltrusis


What: Pensacola Opera's "Carmen"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20 & 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22
Where: Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox Place
Cost:  $15-$85
Details: 484-1847 or

It's hard to tell if Elise Quagliata, lead mezzo-soprano of the Pensacola Opera's rendition of Bizet's "Carmen," is in or out of character. The 27-year-old New York City native oozes a raw sensuality that, at times, seems like she's going to spontaneously combust.

The girl is on fire.

"It's such an enormous role," she says backstage at the Pensacola Opera House on Tarragona Street. "There are a lot of preconceived notions about who Carmen is because it's a famous opera. People expect an older woman. As a 27-year-old, I had to figure out what I'm bringing to the character and what kind of experiences I've had that would work for Carmen."

Quagliata has chosen to interpret Carmen as a youthful, gypsy-girl seductress completely in touch with her sexuality.

"For me, Carmen is young because I'm young," she explains. "Carmen is manipulative. She's always in control of every situation no matter what and she will not let anyone get the best of her. The ball is in her court at all times and because of that, she's just so infinitely attractive to people around her. She's magnetic to everyone—both men and women."

Considered by many to be the most popular opera ever written, the sensual tale of Carmen, the temperamental and deliciously mysterious gypsy girl, is a work teeming with sexual desire. In four fiery acts, she wins over and ultimately breaks the heart of Don José, stabs a coworker at the cigarette factory and woos hottie bullfighter Escamillo.

Quagliata says preparing for all of that on-stage drama is like training for the Olympics.

"Six out of seven days a week for the last three months have been dedicated to 'Carmen,'" Quagliata explains, adding that she had to take flamenco and castanet lessons in addition to mastering the intricate vocals. "In November, I started running in place and singing because it's such a physically exhausting role. There was no way in practice to amp up the energy level to what we're experiencing in this rehearsal space not to mention what we're going to experience onstage. On an emotional level, it's just really challenging."

The mezzo-soprano says that casting has helped her transform Carmen from an older seductress into a young, sex-savvy siren.

"I don't know if it's accidental or intentional," Quagliata remarks, "but Kyle (Marrero) has done a beautiful job with casting. The gypsies are all so young and you have these soldiers who are slightly older, so there's an interesting dichotomy in this production with the young versus the old."

Quagliata insists that even with the Pensacola Opera's younger, sexier version of "Carmen," her interpretation of the infamous character challenges the misconceptions and ideals associated with traditional gender roles.

"She gets what she wants," Quagliata emotes. "Challenging gender roles for her is a necessity. She's a gypsy. She's a bandit. She knows that nobody ultimately is on her side and it's literally every man for himself."

The feisty performer who has successfully graduated from the Pensacola Opera's "Artists in Residence" program to land the role of her career says Carmen is the quintessential archetype of a strong woman.

"It comes down to her being independent," she explains. "I don't think there are any gender barriers with this character. She'll carry a gun and she'll initiate sex as easy as any man."    

Quagliata continues: "That's why this is such a timeless piece. I can't even fathom what the women with bustles and corsets from the 19th Century were thinking when they saw this opera. She's loose, she's got her legs up in the air and her skirt is up, I can't imagine how exciting and liberating it was for women and men to see. Even in our society today, someone like Carmen is incredibly liberal."

The 27-year-old continues to shift in and out of bad-girl mode when describing Bizet's classic ingénue. "It's timeless because every woman wants a little bit of Carmen in them," Quagliata jokes. "And every man wants a whole lot of themselves in Carmen."