All of Seville will be a stage in this 'Carmen'

The concept is simple yet brilliant. In September, the city of Seville will stage the opera "Carmen" on some of the very sites where the 19th- century story is set.

The blockbuster production is certainly ambitious. The open-air performance will require audiences to stretch their legs as much as their imaginations, since each act will take place in a different location.

It's opera modeled on a progressive dinner, if you like.

"Seville is the city of music, where more than 20 operas are set," says opera impresario Michael Ecker. "It is the perfect setting for 'Carmen,' the most often-performed opera in the world."

The production is the centerpiece of the First Seville International Music Festival (Sept. 2-12), which boasts an impressive roster of guests ranging from cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Lang Lang to the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Sir Colin Davis.

"We want to create a new combination of music, flamenco, and culture," says Mr. Ecker, who expects 80,000 people to attend the festival.

For now, Ecker's immediate attention is focused on the logistics of using the city's classic architecture to help recreate the story.

According to the novel upon which the opera is based, Carmen lived in Seville about 1820 and worked in the city's famous cigarette factory. There is no evidence that Carmen, a beautiful gypsy woman, ever existed, but the suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for enjoying opera.

Ecker spared no expense on this production. With an overall budget of $21 million for the festival - part of which goes to the opera production - Ecker has been able to assemble an impressive team.

Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura will direct the new staging, which will reflect life in Seville during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Lorin Maazel, music director for the New York Philharmonic, will conduct London's Philharmonia Orchestra, and more than 800 artists will participate. Singers such as Olga Borodina, Angela Gheorghiu, Denyce Graves, and Ekaterina Sementschuk will take turns in the role of Carmen.

Scouting for locations

Maestro Maazel visited Seville in November, a time when oranges hang thick and golden from trees planted along the city's narrow, winding streets. "At first I doubted that such a production would be possible, but I like a sporting chance and found the challenge enticing, so I agreed to do it," says the American conductor.

Once on board, he found he had to make some compromises to fit the director's vision. Maazel agreed to interrupt George Bizet's score to include the insertion of Flamenco music, which Mr. Saura felt was essential to the telling of the story within a Sevillian context.

"Artistic directors and conductors agree on nothing," says Maazel. He admitted that he and Saura had already had their first fight. "There was no blood on the floor, however, because Carlos Saura is a great friend of mine."

Originally, each act was to have been performed at a different location, but Saura decided to simplify the production. Acts 1 and 2 will be presented on an outdoor stage in the Plaza España, Act 3 shifts to the Maria Louisa Park, and the final act takes place in Seville's Royal Maestranza bullring.

Saura says he wants to present the opera as a slice of life in Seville, representing typical inhabitants of 18th and 19th centuries.

In the opera, Carmen falls in love with Don José, a soldier. But the flirtatious Carmen soon tires of Don José and leaves him for a bullfighter named Escamillo. The drama climaxes in front of the bullring when Don José kills Carmen. In Saura's version, however, the smitten soldier kills the heroine in the bullring, an act that reflects the ritual of the bullfight.

"We are very fortunate to have a chance to perform the last act at Maestranza, which is the cathedral of bullfighting. It is the most beautiful bullring in Spain," says Saura, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 1983 film "Carmen."

Cities are his playgrounds

Michael Ecker is no stranger to grand projects. In 1998, the Viennese impresario produced Giacomo Puccini's opera "Turandot" in the Forbidden City in Beijing, with Zubin Mehta conducting and Zhang Yimou directing the production. Next year, he plans to produce "Fidelio" in the ruins of the ancient city of Italica, near Seville.

But this latest "Carmen" may prove to be his most spectacular brainchild. A towering figure at 6 foot. 3 inches, Ecker has brought Seville under his sway and won over its politicians and artistic community.

"In Andalusia the audience will not only rediscover the tragic love story of Prosper Merimée's novel, but will also fall under the spell of this fascinating city," he says.

To that end, the impresario has also brought together an impressive team of experts. Vittorio Storaro, winner of three Oscars for best photography, will design the lighting. Japanese lighting architect Motoko Ishii will create the lighting for the public areas, and Wolfgang Fritz - sound engineer of the Vienna Opera and the Bregenz Festival - will be in charge of acoustics.

Redefining 'epic'

If all goes according to plan, the collaboration will result in a production of Cecil B. DeMille proportions.

The audience will stroll through Seville between acts. The largest distance is between the third and fourth acts. A two-hour intermission will allow operagoers plenty of time to reach the bullring and to frequent bars set up along the city's Quadalquivir River, where traditional drinks and tapas (small snacks made up of local specialities) will be served.

The opera is scheduled to begin at sunset and end seven hours later. "The people who come to this opera will be coming to a once in a lifetime event," says Ecker. "It will be something they will never forget."

Festival tickets are available in three-day packages through the festival's website:

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