TAMPA — Carmen sat outside the theater's coffee shop wrapped in a chunky gray sweater and leggings, no makeup, smelling more like flowery soap than factory cigarettes.
It was actually Alessandra Volpe, the actor who plays Georges Bizet's wily temptress at Opera Tampa's production of Carmen, opening Friday. The Italian mezzo-soprano lives in the Canary Islands with her husband and 2-year-old son, Lorenzo. She likes to play piano and read novels, unlike the gypsy Carmen, whose primary interests are running amok and seducing soldiers.
Obviously, the role of Carmen requires transformation. Focus. Preparation of voice and body. When someone offered Volpe a Coke at the coffee shop, she politely declined. She doesn't consume carbonation, coffee, popcorn, tomatoes, anything that could compromise her tool.
"No chocolate!" she said, gripping her heart.
This is Volpe's second time in the role, which she also played at Opera Lyra Ottawa. She has come to see Carmen as a character with layers, not good or bad, villain or martyr. She explained in Italian, with the opera's artistic director and conductor Daniel Lipton translating (the maestro speaks about a half dozen languages).
"Carmen is not a victim," said Volpe, 33. "Her greatest necessity is freedom. And she uses that freedom even to go against her destiny."
In the opera, corporal Don Jose falls in love with Carmen, whom all the soldiers want. He gives up everything to be with her, which would be fine if Carmen hadn't fallen for toreador Escamillo. Jealousy meets a messy end.
Carmen was Bizet's last opera, created when he was 36. The sexuality and violence stunned Parisians in 1875, and it was panned. Bizet died soon after.
But it wasn't long before Carmen took on a second life, becoming a wildly praised work. It has been revived over and over again, even once in an MTV version with Beyonce. Melodies like Habanera and Toreador's Song are recognizable to most people, popping up everywhere from cartoons to commercials.
"It's a perfect opera for anyone who has never been to an opera," Lipton said. "It has so much. The passion. The gorgeous music. People are familiar with this music even if they're not aware they're familiar."
Opera's over-the-top emotions set it apart from other forms of art, Lipton said.
"If anybody were to write an opera about, 'Pass me the salt at the end of the breakfast table,' nobody would find it interesting," he said. "The degree of emotion which is happening on stage is so great, just to speak it is not enough. So you have to sing it. It surpasses that first emotional level, that first wall."
And singing opera is an entirely different thing from singing with the radio. Volpe knows. She sang popular music until age 18, she said, when she decided to study operatic voice.
"With popular music and jazz ... you need to breathe and know how to breathe," she said. "But when you start doing opera, breathing becomes a completely different process, because you have to know to use the diaphragm, have to know how to use all the parts of your body. It's like a gymnast. You have to always be in shape, not just vocally, but also physically."
Lipton first saw Volpe sing in Berlin. He felt something in her resonate for Carmen at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, a complement to the production that features flamenco dancers from the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
"I thought she'd be ideal," he said. "Obviously she's a beautiful woman, but it's not that. There are thousands of beautiful women in the world, but very few have that inner beauty that she has. And I felt it."
When we finished talking, Volpe gathered up her pink gym bag and disappeared into the theater for her hair and makeup call. A few hours later, she walked hips first and barefoot onto the stage for Carmen's first dress rehearsal. Her hair was big and wild, her waist bound in a corset.
"Love is a gypsy child who knows no laws," she sang in French. "If you don't love me, I love you. But if I love you, watch out."
Now, she was Carmen.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.