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Interview with Sophie Carmen for 'Je Suis Carmen' Festival OFF Avignon 2022

Sophie Carmen

11 July 2022

Ellen: What is in between you and the audience when you are performing?

Sophie: There is nothing in between us. 


They are so close. There is nothing. That's why we were so afraid. And that's why we love that. We really see people. We really speak to one person in particular or another one. And we have reactions. In fact, it's not like a show, it's a moment together that we spend together.

I took the ferry across the river Rhône. It's free, takes five minutes and the captain invited a young child to drive it. We arrive at the Island of Barthelasse and a short walk leads me to Kabarouf, nestled under trees and a cacophony of cicadas. Kabarouf collaborates with the Alchemical Village Circus to present theatre and circus in Festival OFF and I wander amongst the circus tents to find ‘Je suis Carmen’.

The tent is striped with red and green and inside feels very intimate. Fabric and wood. The wind outside flaps the tent’s walls and punctuates the dark with bursts of sunlight.  I watch Sophie tune a harp and Amanda measure the distance between bottles before balancing on them. This circus show uses the pole in the centre of the tent and it’s incredible to be so close. I watch them rehearse and then join Sophie Chabert on the stage to ask her some questions. 

Ellen: Can you introduce yourself and tell me about the work that you've done on 'Je suis Carmen’?

Sophie: I’m Sophie Chabert, I’m an opera singer so I'm not used to doing circus or stuff like that. It's my first spectacle like this because usually I sing classical music. But I love to do special spectacles, it’s really good for me because I like to do different things. I love classical music, opera and everything but… it's not boring…maybe a little bit…


So for me, it's fun to do this kind of thing. 

Ellen: Did you learn everything you did in the show for the first time?! Because you were doing cool tricks on the pole!

Sophie: Yeah, it was the first time I tried. It’s really fun because in fact it was the guy who wrote the spectacle, Gilles Cailleau, I worked with him for the opera of Carmen and that’s the way he knew me and he asked me to do this spectacle. And it was really fun because he knows my fears because that’s the way he works. It’s like, “oh you’re afraid of this…so do it” and he always does that and I love it because I’m challenged. And I’m afraid of the height! 

Ellen: Really?!

Sophie: Yeah, so he was like, “do it” and I was like, “alright!”

Ellen: You’re afraid of heights so we’re going to have you climb up the pole in the middle of the tent!

Sophie: At the beginning I didn’t try here, it’s dangerous because we don’t have anything on the floor.  I tried in the school with mats and I was like, you know what? Okay. When I try, it's good. And I was so afraid, it was crazy! Every day I was trying and was like “breathe…breathe” [Sophie exhales] Okay, a little bit more, and more. And one day I didn’t really pay attention to that. And I was really high, but I didn't know, I just kept climbing. Then I looked down and [Sophie inhales sharply]. Amanda (Amanda Righetti, an accomplished circus performer and the other performer in ‘Je suis Carmen’) looked up to me and she was like:

“Just go down!” and I said, “no no no no!” “Yes! Just go down!”“ No no, wait a minute, no!”



“Just a minute [Sophie exhales] Okay!”

It was always this feeling. And I really hate knives. 

Ellen: Really?! (There are knife tricks in the show and I’m very surprised by to hear all of this)

Sophie: But it was like, okay. We will just [Sophie gestures away from her body with her hands, a forward motion with her palms facing up] It's always like this.

Ellen: How incredible!

Sophie: Yeah. And now it's okay because I'm not afraid anymore. It's wonderful, you know? I love this work. That it is really hard. 

Ellen: It looks like it! You use your body so much during the show, there’s so much action on stage. What was the process of discovering the relationship between the text and the action alongside these skills that you'd never done?

Sophie: Oh, we created everything. It’s a creation, this spectacle. 

Ellen: It was devised? (I’m learning that creation refers to a collaborative devised process instead of the way I interchange it with the word ‘work’ or ‘show’)

Sophie: Devised?

Ellen: We use the term devised when there’s not a writer giving you a script at the beginning..

Sophie: Oh, no, no, we wrote it. Yes. And so at the beginning Gilles wanted to work with me to do this spectacle with Amanda. At the beginning it was only Amanda and then he worked with me and he was like, “I want you in the spectacle with Amanda”. He chose Amanda and me because we are the opposite. And we are really the opposite. I mean, it's incredible. At the beginning it was really hard because we just couldn't communicate, we didn't understand each other. It was just so hard, and without fighting and everything really.



Sometimes we just couldn't just work.  So it was all a process to understand the other, the word of the other person. So we started to work and because it was a creation we had really nothing so Gilles said, “Let’s write text about this, what do you think about this?” Amanda and I would write things and then read it and then choose some things: Some songs we like, or “Oh, I’d like to walk on bottles”,“Okay, we’ll try this!” 

So we tried a lot of things and afterwards Gilles wrote the text, because he’s an author and he knows how to write so after he took our text and he rewrote it. We tried everything you see (in the show). It's things that Amanda and I wanted to try and we put it all together after that. 

Ellen: And what theatrical language did you end up using in rehearsals? Because you come from such different disciplines?

Sophie:  Yeah, yeah! We didn't understand each other. An example, Gilles was like, “Try a dance that Sophie likes” and after that “Sophie, you try a dance that Amanda likes”.  And she was like… what did she say? I don’t remember She said a word about music. I didn't know this kind of music word existed. And after that I said, “Let’s go waltz!”  Because I like waltz. She was like, “What?” 

[more laughter]

And it was everything like that, and she's Spanish, and I like to go to bed early and she went to bed late. It was everything. It was crazy. But now we are friends!

Ellen: What an interesting process to undertake together. Oh, I forgot to ask you: where are we right now?

Sophie: Ah! It's the tent where we created the spectacle. We’ve had it from the beginning, the spectacle was created for this space.

Ellen: And how does it feel to perform here? 

Sophie: Oh, at the beginning, for me, it was hard because I'm used to… the drama stage and the public is just far away, so it's like, okay.

Ellen: There’s distance? 

Sophie: Yeah. Distance. And it's easy when you're distanced. Yes. But you know, when the public are just two metres in front of you, or less, you can see everything. You can look in their eyes. For me, it was hard and for Amanda too. The first scene when I sing and I look at everybody and that's also a thing I was afraid of: looking into the eyes of people. I was like, “eeeeh [cowers] oh my God”. And now I love it. But it was a challenge. Everything was a challenge.  

Ellen: Where do you spend most of your time during the festival?

Sophie: We just arrived yesterday and it's my first Avignon Festival for my whole life so I don’t know! But I think I will just rest when I don't have the spectacle.

Ellen: Have you performed ‘Je suis Carmen’ to an audience before?

Sophie: Maybe we did around 40? (shows)

Ellen: Wow! Who is your audience for this show and how do they differ to the audiences you’ve had in opera? 

Sophie: They’re so different. (For ‘Je suis Carmen’) we have young people, old people, poor people, rich… we have everyone. Because it’s also that… I don’t know if I can say this properly (in English) but it’s the way we think… in art. It's important. We, Amanda and I, we don't want just to be like: we're on stage, we're paid and it's our job. We like to be in relationships with populations and we do a lot of things like that because it's more important than just being on stage. So usually we go to poor cities, I don’t know in English if it’s a fine word, and we have a workshop with people and we have a really good relationship with people and after they come to the show. 

We don't go to big…well we go to Avignon because it's important for the spectacle, but usually we don't do this kind of thing. We just go to see disadvantaged people because we want them to know that it's possible for them to do that and see that. Sometimes people think it's not for them and we want to change that. So that's our way of working. It's why we do that because… it's not for us. 

Ellen: How would you describe the form of the show? The style of the show?

Sophie: [Whistles] I think it's hard to explain it. Because I’m not used to this, you know that, so I don't really know circus shows. So for me it's really interesting because we have classical music but with circus, acrobatics and theatre so it's a mix of different things. We chose Carmen because it's very well known but not just because of that, because Carmen (as a) person is very interesting. It's about women. It's about freedom. And so we need this in this time. We wrote the show around what we thought of this character. So some people know the Carmen of the book and are like, “we don't really see the story of Carmen when we see this spectacle” but that’s not really important to us. It's more important to understand what we want to say about it than to have the story of Carmen. You (referring to Ellen) didn't understand the French text, but I think if you don't understand the (original) story it's not important. It’s the gesture, the thought. And the “Okay, oh yes. Freedom. Women can have freedom”. And you think about things. For me it's more important but some people need to have a story. 

Ellen: As you were discovering and unpacking your response to the story of Carmen, did anything surprise you? What were some discoveries?

Sophie: Yes! Because to write this show we decided to find a past to the characters of the book. So we're like why this guy, Don José… Carmen, why do they do what they do? And that's really cool. Why did they do that? We never ask this kind of question when we go to the opera. And we didn't want to have, “Don José is a bad guy” and “Carmen is a poor girl” we didn’t want that. So in the text we have… [Sophie looks at me and we acknowledge that I couldn’t understand all that was said in the monologues] we have Don José, you have Carmen, you have Escamillo and they speak and with this text, when you can understand why they do what to do. 

You never have a victim. You never have a bad guy or something. It's more complex, like life. And it's important, I think, to understand why. It's not like, “Ah, this guy is sexy, he’s a bad guy” and “Oh, it’s a girl who shows her leg, she’s a bad girl”. That's about freedom and tolerance because we think we need this in, in our times. It’s about Carmen so it’s about women. It's not like you have to sing this and then sing this, but think a little bit, and you will understand that you need to open your mind because it's art. 

Ellen: What is in between you and the audience when you are performing?

Sophie: There is nothing in between us. 


They are so close. There is nothing. That's why we were so afraid. And that's why we love that. We really see people. We really speak to one person in particular or another one. And we have reactions. In fact, it's not like a show, it's a moment together that we spend together.

Ellen: For you, when does a project feel finished? When does work feel finished?

Sophie: Never. And it's great because when it's finished, it's just boring. I think we choose this kind of work because we always learn and it's never finished. I need to learn all the time.

Ellen: In your mind, when did you become an artist?

Sophie: I don't know if I'm an artist! Even now I don’t know. Maybe it's because for me, it's so impressive. When I was a child I was like, “Oh my God, that's wonderful.” And I was so impressed. So I never thought I could do it. And I started to think (about it) when I was 21 or 22 but it was not to be a singer. It was more like psychological stuff to learn because I was really shy. I couldn't watch in the people's eyes. So I started to do voice just to inform my communication. 

Ellen: And now?!

Sophie: And now, yeah! I'm so proud. I'm really happy with my choices. And it goes how you grow up, as a person (earlier, Sophie told me about her journey from being a musician and playing the harp to getting her masters degree in law) For me I grew up as a person and I was like, okay:  harpest, lawyer, voice. And it changes. It changes all the time. Maybe I will do something else after this. 

See ‘Je suis Carmen’ in Avignon in their tent at Kabarouf until the 16th of July 2022. 

Festival OFF Program: Attention Fragile:

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