Some operas are so well loved and so widely performed that our perception of their origins and influences can become somewhat blurred. We may think of Madama Butterfly, for example, as being firmly in the Italian tradition, overlooking the great lengths to which Puccini went to incorporate the true sound of the Orient into his score. Sourcing traditional recordings from the wife of the Japanese minister in Rome, he absorbed the unusual melodies into his own compositions. Twenty-five years earlier, Bizet was using similar methods to add a flavour of Spain to Carmen, his opera based on the famous Prosper Merimee story. Using a tune by the Spanish musician Sebastian Yradier as his main inspiration, he re-worked the famous 'Habanera' many times, striving for authenticity and perfection.

Privat
Privat

So well known has Carmen become, that aspects of the score transcend the world of the opera lover. There are many who would claim to know nothing of the genre, but are able to hum the 'Habanera' or the 'Seguidilla'- but how many of us are familiar with the real Spanish origins of these arias? That's just what Opera North have been exploring in the run up to their new production of Carmen. In a series of events at the Howard Assembly Rooms, they have offered film screenings and flamenco, and on the opening night of Carmen, a pre-opera insight into the music of old Spain, courtesy of Catalan singer and guitarist Clara Sanabras and Lebanese musician Abdul Salam-Kheir.

Fusing the Muslim and Christian influences of medieval Spain, Twilight: Landahlauts took us on a journey through the early music of the country, by way of some ancient 'mwasha' (Arabic poems from the 9th Century) Spanish songs of the 1800s and original compositions by Sanabras and Salam-Kheir. It was out of this music that the flamenco tradition was born, and in the half-light of the beautiful venue, we heard songs with themes of love and war which foretold the events of Bizet's opera, and conjured images from the story which inspired him to compose it. “I could hear the castanets and the tambourine, the laughter and the cheers” Merimee's Don Jose tells us as he peers over a wall to see Carmen and the gypsy musicians perform. “Sometimes I caught a glimpse of her head as she leapt up with her tambourine.”

Dressed in flowing black and adorned with red flowers, Clara Sanabras might easily have been Carmen herself. Her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice soared effortlessly over the demanding traditional music with rich, rounded sounds in the lower register and bird-like sweetness when she reached the top notes. An accomplished musician, she has mastered a range of exotic instruments, and her wonderful guitar playing was in evidence on the night, harmonising beautifully with the sound of Abdul Salam-Kheir's oud, a stringed instrument used in North African and Middle Eastern music. Salam-Kheir has had a long and distinguished musical career, collaborating with a diverse mix of artists including Led Zeppelin, Juan Martin and soprano Catherine Bott. His sound has an almost mystic quality, unusual to western ears but hugely atmospheric and evocative of an ancient past. When his voice entwined with that of Sanabras, it was intoxicating. It was also a musical history lesson, revealing to the audience the influence that the Arabic world had on the sounds and traditions we may think of as purely Spanish.

The event was an opportunity to dip your toe into unknown waters, and I was grateful to have been given the chance to hear these accomplished musicians perform. I was also grateful to Opera North for the thought provoking nature of their 'Inspired by Carmen' events, which have led me to listen a little more carefully to an opera which I wrongly thought I knew inside out. Twilight: Landahlauts was so atmospheric that, as Sanabras and Salam-Kheir left the stage and most of the audience made their way to the theatre for the first performance of Carmen, I was frustrated that I would have to wait until Saturday to take up my own seat. I'm hoping for more 'Inspired by' events in the future, and wonder whether other opera companies could be persuaded to follow Opera North's lead with ventures like this.