When Gustavo Leone got the assignment to score Court Theatre’s adaptation of Prosper Merimee’s novella “Carmen,” he was mindful of inevitable comparisons with Georges Bizet’s classic.

“I realized that all of us knew the story of Carmen through Bizet’s famous arias,” he says, “so I was glad to learn that this production would turn to the original source and use music sparingly and only strategically.”

Yet it was a revival of the Bizet opera that first piqued the interest of Charles Newell, Court’s artistic director. “I saw Peter Brook’s simple, abridged staging and was struck afresh by the intimacy and passion of the tale,” he says. “Then I read Merimee’s book and found the narrative structure to be quite different.”

Newell approached James Robinson, an old hand at directing musical theater, about adapting Merimee’s novella, a lurid tale of lust, jealousy, and murder that’s recounted as if it were a scientific report by an archaeologist who’d traveled to Spain and become fascinated with its Gypsy subculture. “The archaeologist, as an outside observer, gives an intellectual narrative,” Robinson explains, “and nested within it is a series of emotional, confessional flashbacks from Don Jose, the love-struck soldier whose obsession with controlling the free-spirited Carmen ends in murder.”

Robinson made the double narrative “less linear and intentionally jagged,” then told Leone the music had to supply an emotional undercurrent as well as play with the expectations of an audience already familiar with the opera.

A native of Buenos Aires, Leone grew up listening and playing the folk tunes of Argentina and Spain. After study-ing composition at Catholic University in Buenos Aires, he came to the University of Chicago for graduate school in the mid-80s. There he studied with Ralph Shapey and Shulamit Ran, both practitioners of rigorously atonal composition. “They taught me the theory and craft of composing, a solid foundation that I have since applied to all kinds of music,” says Leone, who now teaches at Columbia College.

Leone, who had only a couple of student theatrical projects on his resume when he took on Carmen, started by carefully going over Bizet’s score. “His librettists got rid of the archaeologist narrator because it’d have been boring for this guy to sing all the time. And they invented Micaela, Jose’s wholesome fiance, to serve as a counterpoint to the voluptuous Carmen. What impresses me most about the opera is how skillfully Bizet transformed the folk sources.”

Leone then steeped himself in Gypsy folk materials. “I read about Gypsy life and listened to the old tunes compiled by Garcia Lorca and many zarzuelas.

I watched Latcho Drom. I impregnated myself with the colors and styles of Gypsy and Andalusian music.” He found a tender Basque song that’s sung by Don Jose, who, unlike the brawny soldier in the opera, is a rather dissolute aristocrat.

Leone also gave Carmen an exotic Gypsy number and gave the archaeologist a signature tune. “I quote Bizet here and there,” he adds with a smile, “and I wrote a habanera just in case people expect the famous one from the opera.”

Leone wrote about 25 minutes of music, but it doesn’t dominate. “It’s a collage of sorts that helps to set up the moods of love and hate and to introduce the characters and their perspectives,” he says. “What’s unique about it, besides the authenticity, is that it’s not incidental music. It is a vital part of the texture woven by the adapter.”

Carmen opens with a 7 PM curtain Monday, January 13, and will run through February 2 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis. Tickets are $24 and $32; call 773-753-4472. –Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Leone photo by Nathan Mandell.