Members of the Carmen Youth Council advise the creative team. (Courtesy of CJay Philip)
Members of the Carmen Youth Council advise the creative team. (Courtesy of CJay Philip)

A special Martin Luther King Jr. Day presentation of the George Bizet opera “Carmen” will include a discussion about escalating conflicts and violence among young people.

“Voices of Carmen,” an urban musical adaption of the iconic opera set in a high school to contemporary rhythm and beats, is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 21 at Motor House in Baltimore. Admission is free.

CJay Philip, the writer, director and choreographer, called it a creative vehicle for important conversations.

“Basically, one of the things about doing a new musical production is that it’s designed to be a vehicle for community conversations,” said Philip, who first produced an adaption of “Carmen” in 2007 in Zurich, Switzerland, with her brother and co-choreographer Kelvin Hardy.

Philip said the feedback she received during earlier auditions from her students made her realize the benefits of establishing a production to recognize the slain civil rights leader’s holiday.

“I was shocked how fantastic and quick [the students] were with the material,” she said. “The young people wanted to do this for Martin Luther King Jr. Day specifically because of what we are talking about … escalating conflicts with teens and how do we de-escalate them and what are the tools to deal with fear and frustration. Specifically, we talked about this under the umbrella of nonviolence, so that’s why we’re doing the Martin Luther King Jr. Day event.”

A French Opéra-Comique, “Carmen” is based on the novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée that was first published in 1845. According to historians, the opera premiered in Paris in 1875, but its opening run was denounced by the majority of critics.

It is set in southern Spain and tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by Carmen. José abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties, yet loses Carmen’s love to Escamillo, a matador.

Jose ultimately kills Carmen in a fit of jealousy. Historians said Bizet died of a heart attack at 36 in 1875, never knowing how popular Carmen would become.

The more recent escalation in school violence and relational aggression among teens led Philip to believe the time was right to bring “Carmen” to the stage and into communities as a vehicle for dialogue about sensitive topics, she said.

“I was tired of town hall meetings and community conversations after an incident,” Philip said. “Teenagers are being beat up, bullied and even killed over a breakup. We have to find a way to get out in front of this problem. ‘Voices of Carmen’ is my attempt to create an avenue for youth voices to be heard and for communities to listen.

“Young people face a lot of pressures, stress, fear and are shamed every day,” she said. “How can we help them deal with it and know they are not alone?”

Philip updated the work and rewrote much of the script, employing her “Carmen Youth Council” of students who advise her on school climate, music styles, themes and relevance of the work.

Contemporary arrangements of the music by Bizet, along with eight originals songs written and arranged by Philip in collaboration with her husband and music producer Winston Philip, range from R&B to pop and hip-hop.

Citywide auditions are scheduled from March 2-4 for youths ages 14-21. The show premieres July 31 at the Baltimore School for the Arts, and a performance will also be given at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage on Aug. 3.

“Voices of Carmen” music is available for free on SoundCloud for students to learn and prepare for the citywide auditions in March.

Once the roles have been cast, participating students will record an original album before the start of “Camp Carmen” at the Baltimore School for the Arts on June 8.

For tickets for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day performance, go to

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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