Elaina Pulla shows Carmen’s many sides in the WIlliams concert.
Elaina Pulla shows Carmen’s many sides in the WIlliams concert. (Photos courtesy of Ralph Hammann)

This article has been updated to reflect that tickets to "Carmen" are $15, but free for students.

WILLIAMSTOWN -- She stood up, walked two steps to the piano, hummed the pitch softly under her breath and soared into the Habañera.

Elaina Pullano of Dalton, Williams ‘15, sang Carmen, beckoning in the come-hither song and then frightened, saddened, in the Card Trio, when she has her Tarot read and sees her own death. She ended the few bars on a determined, lingering low note: Toujours l'amour -- always love.

Saturday night, she will sing Georges Bizet's Sevillian Gypsy.

Keith Kibler, artist associate in voice at Williams College and Pullano's mentor, has brought the production together. His professional opera company, The New Opera, has created performances for college-age musicians for 10 years, pairing them with professional musicians.

"It's all about young singers," he said.

He has seen alumni go on to sing at Tanglewood, where he himself has performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa.

With the newly formed Williams Opera Workshop, New Opera will present a staged concert of "Carmen" at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 28.

Williams is a great school with gifted students, he said. He finds at least seven or eight in each year who can compete with the singers he went to school with in conservatory. "Singing is a huge, large art, like conducting," Kibler said -- blending strength in the music and the words.

He has confidence in Pullano's strength.

"Elaina is also a kind person," he said. "I can tell from what we have done together. She is a dear friend now. We know each other very well. That's a beautiful thing about Williams -- we will give the students all the attention they need. Conservatory is not like that."

Pullano agreed. Students work closely with professors here across the board, she said. They do research together and form friendships.

And Williams has resources as a liberal arts college -- when Kibler led students in a performance of "Elijah," they talked with an Old Testament scholar.

He has found that when his students think about the meaning of what they sing, they perform more powerfully, and they also sing better.

Pullano spoke warmly of that depth of understanding.

"You need to know what you're singing about, who sings, who to, where you're performing," she said, "so you can give your most well-rounded performance."

Pullano has studied singing since she was 11, and she began studying with Kibler even before she came to Williams.

"It's been great," she said. "He's a well of knowledge."

He has taught her the music and the craft, she said. She has learned to become a better artist, to understand more than the score on the page, to dig deeper.

They began working on "Carmen," several months ago, though Pullano has sung Carmen's "Habañera" since she was 13 and knows it cold.

"My grandmother used to say ‘learn the Card Trio,'" she said. "I never learned it until after she had passed."

She revelled in the range of the music and the emotion it expresses.

The Habañera's descending chromatic line, a snake-like motion between notes, seduces everybody, Pullano said. But in the Card Trio, Carmen is shaken, scared, and the music changes, deeper and less lyric.

Many people know the music to "Carmen," she said, and many have a set idea of who she is. But studing the music this spring, Pullano has found new depth to her.

"People want to play her as a vamp," she said, "bu she's not a straight-up vamp. She's self-assured, she knows what she wants and believes in, she will act confidently -- she wants free love for as long as she wants it, and then she moves on. She's confident, superstitious, earthy. She's deeper than people think. I'm trying to play her as deeper."

She has a kind of vulnerability, Pullano said, bound to her confidence. Carmen puts herself out there again and again. She gives all of herself, and she never becomes jaded or bitter.

"She's all in and then all out," Pullano said. "She never takes, except from Don José," the hero who follows her at the cost of his regiment and his marriage.

"She gives him a promise," Pullano said, "and she keeps it.

"What could he have given her?" Kibler asked.

He sees her insisting on the freedom to choose: "Ok, kill me, but I'm not going to love you again."

"Post-Modern scholars like to write about what's wrong with opera that women get killed every time," he said, "but she's not like the victims, not like ‘La Bohème.'"

"Carmen" in its day it was a musical, Kibler said, with "good tunes, intense situations, love, rejections, sex" -- but without recognizeable heroes and villains.

Bizet set it in Spain and wrote it in France, based on a French novella, and it premiered in the Little Opera House, the Opéra-Comique, in Paris, in 1875.

"19th-century Paris had about 16 different governments," Kibler said. "Theater was a stabilizing force. People could go to the theater, whatever was raging outside."

When "Carmen" played there, the performance also raged inside: Life-like people shaken by passion and fear.

And Bizet died two weeks after the opera premiered -- of heart disease. He never heard his music travel the world.

If you go ...

What: Elaina Pullano in New Opera and Williams Opera Workshop's staged ‘Carmen'

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 28

Where: Chapin Hall, Williams College, Route 2, Williamstown

Admission: Tickets are $15; student tickets are free

Information: williams.edu