How do you like your Carmen? Faux French or pastiche Spanish? (Bizet never went to Spain.) The most recent London production – by the film-maker Sally Potter for English National Opera – was dedicated to stripping away the flamenco clichés, so that what Potter termed the "secret emotional geometry" could (in theory) fill the stage.
And how do you like your Carmen? Prosper Mérimée, who wrote the short story on which Bizet's opera was based, saw her as the object of a story of male desire, as told by Don José to a narrator on the eve of his execution for the murder of his mistress. Mérimée's Carmen was silent. Since Bizet brought her pulsatingly to life, she has stood for every variety of male temptation and female liberation: the alluringly provocative slut whom Anna Caterina Antonacci incarnated for the opening run of Francesca Zambello's livestock-rich Royal Opera version was, in my view, much nearer the mark than the vocally refined but physically gauche Alice Coote in Potter's pretentiously ideological show.
Zambello's production is now being revived with a singer in the title role whose only Royal Opera performance to date was four years ago, as an affecting Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. So, although Nancy Fabiola Herrera has sung Carmen in Mexico City, Madrid, Rome, Tokyo and at the New York Met, this is her big London moment – and it's even quite a moment when she bursts into the interview room. Her Japanese make-up for Suzuki had left a pale image in my mind: what confronts me now is a larger-than-life creature with darkly voluptuous features and huge glowing eyes; one senses immediately her Spanish origins. This woman absolutely is Carmen.
And she's still heaving with the anger she's had to evince in a rehearsal of Act III in this very physical production: "Give me a minute to come down, then I'll feel good," she says. Is Carmen her favourite role? "I guess so. It's like a second skin. I fell in love with the role the moment I saw the score." These are the words of a musician, not a theatrical wannabe. "The character felt like me." How so? "There are things you learn from her as a woman, and they're all about feeling good in your skin. She's practical, she lives in and for the moment. She doesn't care about the past or the future, she's about now. That's a quality I have always admired." And possessed? "I've worked on it – and I'm better at it than I was."
But, as the libretto reminds us, Carmen's love affairs don't last even six months: she's not a faithful person, is she? "She is, but in her own way. She's faithful to herself. And she's never with two guys at the same time. She's in charge of her life, a free spirit, and she's faithful in her own way. Her character feels like me."
Is that an engagement ring flashing on her finger? Herrera blushes and laughs. How will her prometido – a timpanist from Montevideo – react when he reads these words? "I think he agrees. He understands me. In my personal life, I have a very constant nature."
Herrera was born in Gran Canaria. Her parents emigrated from there to Venezuela, but soon went back to the Canaries, her father to work in a lab, her mother to run a café beside the university, in which Nancy worked every evening from the age of eight. "My childhood revolved around that café," she says. "I would get up at six, and after school I sold coffee and writing materials to the students. But I also studied piano at the conservatoire, and to please my mother I worked hard at it. I didn't have the technical facility to become a professional, but I had musicality."
She applied to study piano at Madrid conservatoire, and was rejected. "But I'd sung in the school choir. I loved polyphonic music, above all gospel – I knew nothing about opera then. So I thought, I'll sing an aria and try to get in that way. To my surprise, they were interested."
After studying for four years at the Juilliard, and four more in the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia – returning home to sing zarzuela, Spain's charming brand of operetta – she sang her first Carmen at 29, in Barcelona. Now she's moving faster, expanding her Russian, French, German and Spanish recital repertoire, recording zarzuela with Placido Domingo, and singing Verdi on every continent.
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Francesca Zambello, who has had many Carmens pass through her hands, thinks she's on to a winner with Herrera: "She's got that incredible Latin energy – she's all the things you'd expect of a Carmen, but at the same time she's unexpected. She brings a freshness and softness to the role, and has an intuitive sense of the spirituality of the character. And she's a wonderful dancer!" From next Tuesday, we can check this out.
'Carmen' is at the Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000), from 25 March to 17 April
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