WHEN BALTIMORE OPERA general director Michael Harrison changed his mind and decided he wanted a new production of "Carmen," he had to look no farther than his next door neighbor for a set designer.
Just over the fence from his Reservoir Hill home lives Soledad Salame, a Chilean-born artist.
"He asked me what I thought of doing 'Carmen,'" Salame said. After they talked for several days, Salame said, "'yes, I'd be so happy to do this.'"
In little more than a month's time, Salame designed a series oabstract scenery for Georges Bizet's well-known, four-act opera, which will open Baltimore Opera's 40th season on Oct. 13.
Drawing on her experience as a painter and sculptor, Salame created designs for painted murals, fabric hangings, sculptural pieces, and transparencies that she hopes will provide a strong visual complement to the music drama.
"What I've tried to do is concentrate more on the universal ide of the opera," says Salame. "I try to keep some of the reality of the time of the story and synthesize it with what is living today."
Harrison, who worked with Salame to develop the concept, said her scenic design falls somewhere between an abstract approach and a literal representation of the story. "I like to call it presentational," says Harrison.
If her work at a recent show at Maryland Art Place is any indication, her "Carmen" will use strong, rich colors in a style that is abstract while still resembling realistic images.
When Baltimore Opera's season was announced last June, the scenery for "Carmen" was to be rented from the Cincinnati Opera. A new production was originally planned, but financial pressures dictated that the company trim expenses for the 1990-91 season.
The most publicized casualty was a new production of "Tristan ** und Isolde," which was withdrawn in favor of a concert of Wagner operatic excerpts.
"When I decided I didn't really want to live with the Cincinnati production for the opening of our 40th season, I thought we could do an abstract "Carmen" because it was not only something we could afford, but it was more practical for the Lyric [Opera House] stage," Harrison says.
"Carmen," the story by Prosper Merimee that Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy fashioned into a libretto for Bizet, is set in 19th century Seville and follows the exploits of the alluring Carmen, a gypsy girl who wins the heart of Don Jose from the peasant girl Micaela only to later abandon him for the bullfighter Escamillo. (Baltimore Opera will perform the edition that uses the composed recitatives of Ernest Guiraud, which replaced the spoken dialogue of the original version which premiered at the Opera-Comique in Paris in 1875.)
The opera requires four changes of scenery, including th evocation of wild mountain pass in Act Three. Because there is little space off-stage to store scenery while not being used, the opera would ordinarily be difficult for to stage at the Lyric.
"The problem is how to make Acts One, Two and Four go away for Act Three," he says, adding that he feels the flexible, abstract approach avoids these logistical problems. The traditional costumes for this "Carmen" will be rented from the Dallas Opera.
Harrison had known Salame, but had not seen her work until her recent show at Maryland Art Place. "As soon as I saw the kind of abstract expressionism of her work, I knew she would be perfect for this opera," he says.
The 36-year-old artist was trained mostly in Caracas, Venezuela, and is now based in Baltimore, where she lives with her husband, photographer Michael Koryta. "He helped me by building an intricate set model," she says.
Her work is shown at the Knight Gomez Gallery in Baltimore and the Zenith Gallery in Washington.
Salame had never seen "Carmen," so for inspiration she immersed herself in the music and did research at the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. "The staff there was unbelievably helpful," she says. "They kept calling me at home with more information."
The Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, with his art nouveau-inspired architecture, and the surreal colors of Spanish painter Joan Miro are cited by Salame as major influences in the design.
"Some of the colors and designs are to create the mood of the opera," Salame says, "while others seem to represent things. In Act One and Four I use a collage that tries to describe the light and shadow of Seville, and in building a stairway to the cigarette factory I use forced perspective to give only the suggestion of stairs."
With the designs done, Salame's next step will be to work with the stage director, lighting designer, and finally, the make sure all her intentions are realized.
"That's when the real work begins," she said.