Opera’s great femme fatale becomes a woman in search of freedom in the hands of South Africa’s Isango Ensemble

By Christina Campodonico

Pauline Malefane plays a more sympathetic Carmen — a woman who challenges repressive norms imposed by a male-dominated society Photo credit: Laura Heffington

Pauline Malefane plays a more sympathetic Carmen — a woman who challenges repressive norms imposed by a male-dominated society
Photo credit: Laura Heffington

Whether portrayed as an evil seductress, a wildly free spirit or an unfortunate victim of her own charms, Carmen, the title role of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera, has long been a woman of controversy. But for the Isango Ensemble’s Pauline Malefane, this leading role is much more than gendered stereotypes.

The South African opera star returned to The Broad Stage last weekend with her company to play the infamous gypsy in “uCarmen.” She performs again this weekend before the ensemble heads off to Baltimore. The production, based on the company’s 2005 Berlin International Film Festival award-winning film “U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha,” sets the classic opera in a modern day South African township, but also places Carmen’s womanhood at the center of the opera.

“In the traditional setup, she’s seen as this woman who doesn’t have control, who sleeps around. If she wants that man, that man is hers. If she doesn’t want that man she moves on,” Malefane explains. Embroiled in a contentious Spanish love triangle, Carmen is often characterized as the ultimate femme fatale — fierce, saucy and promiscuous. In Malefane’s view, such representations are based on a male perception of Carmen, rather than Carmen’s complex relationship to men.

So Malefane takes a more nuanced approach to the character. To inform the role, she draws on her personal experience of seeing women struggling to survive in her home township of Khayelitsha.

“I ask myself, having grown up in a township, what are the rhythms of the woman behaving like this? I’m not trying to defend the way she behaves. I’m trying to understand the character, and I’m trying to understand Carmen,” Malefane says.

Malefane ultimately sees Carmen’s wayward actions as symptomatic of the unequal circumstances under which many women live.

“She’s not perfect, but it’s a typical woman who’s trying to survive in a male-dominated society. She’s trying
to free herself from the world of being told what to do and when to do it,” Malefane says.

In that way, Carmen’s plight is more universal than audiences might realize.

“For me, Carmen represents every woman on Earth — married or not, children or no children, morals or no standards,” Malefane says. “It could be me. It could be you. … It could be the queen of England.”

That Carmen could indeed be every woman is what inspires Malefane’s work on this particular production.

With Malefane at the helm as lead actress and co-founder of the Isango Ensemble, “uCarmen” is an opportunity to challenge the opera’s familiar gender dynamics.

“The one thing that drives me about the character is the point of education.” Malefane says. “With ‘Carmen’ what we wanted to achieve was to educate women and bring back their self-worth. We are human beings who are as equally important as men.”

Malefane’s favorite line from the opera probably sums up this mission best.

In the last act, right before Carmen meets her fate, she tells her crazed lover Don José, “Free I was born and free I will die.”

It’s a mantra that this production seeks to drive home.

Isango Ensemble’s “uCarmen” continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $60+. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.