Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock as Carmen | Credit: Zach Mendez Photo

“There’s nothing you can’t do if you have a good story and good music in your hands.” That’s how Kostis Protopapas, the intrepid Artistic and General Director of Opera Santa Barbara looks at the company’s upcoming production of Carmen, which will take place on Sunday afternoon, December 6, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds as a “Live Drive-In” opera experience. Protopapas, who has been working continuously since April to restore live music programming to Santa Barbara, has learned a lot from the process, and he says that no lesson is more important than “never take anything for granted.” Thanks to the team at OSB and the expertise of the crew at the Fairgrounds, who have been presenting live music there since June, opera fans can once again thrill to a live performance after months of deprivation and video-only events.

With mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock as Carmen, the audience can expect a superb performance at the center of this innovative production. With the cooperation of the American Federation of Musicians, Protopapas and his cast, crew, and orchestra have designed a safe, socially distant procedure that’s taken them from earliest rehearsals and will last until the final note is sung and the last car leaves the lot. Every step of the way has taken place outdoors, and each performer occupies an exclusive personal rectangle on the giant grid that comprises the performing space. There will be scenic elements in this concert version of Carmen, which is being reimagined as a radio play of the 1940s. With everyone in masks unless they are singing or playing a wind or brass instrument, and two rapid tests required for all performers in the 48 hours leading up to the event, this will be an exceptionally rigorous sample of what is possible and necessary for performing arts operations to continue live programming during the pandemic.

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The 90-minute orchestral score that this production will employ comes from the famous 1981 version directed by Peter Brook in Paris, but Protopapas promises that, unlike the Brook telling, this will not be a “dark” Carmen, which he said was not what people need during a pandemic. There will be a play within that play deriving from the relationships between the performers in the fictive radio show, and the whole aesthetic will be that of film noir. Although there won’t be as much in the way of bulls and matadors as one might expect from a more traditional, indoor Carmen, fans can expect that the addition of looks and gestures from the movement vocabulary of silent cinema will enliven the images broadcast on the Fairgrounds giant screen.

In preparation for mounting this show, the Opera Santa Barbara team traveled to the venue for a Fishbone concert, and what they found gave them confidence. “The Concerts in your Car group knows what they are doing” said Protopapas, adding that “they can handle up to 700 cars with virtually no waiting time, the security is great, and the parking spaces are large enough that people can get out of their cars and set up lawn chairs, as long as they keep their masks on.” The venue’s sound and video are also excellent, he said.

As the conductor, Protopapas faces one of the evening’s most daunting challenges, but when asked about the constraints involved, he’s all enthusiasm, saying that it’s his impression that mask-wearing has, if anything, made people more attentive to eye contact and gesture than before. “For a conductor, the idea has always been the less you talk, the better.”

Carmen: A Live Drive-in Opera takes place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 6, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds (10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura). For tickets and information, visit or call (805) 898-3890.

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