In a manner of speaking, French composer Georges Bizet gave Australian opera director Lindy Hume her break. About 25 years ago, Hume directed Carmen for West Australian Opera. After almost a decade of assistant directorial duties, she recalls the production as the one where she "put down the tracks and took off the training wheels".

Now she's come back to Bizet's celebrated final stage work, first performed in 1875 before becoming one of the most frequently performed operas. Directing Carmen for NZ Opera, which opens its five-night Auckland season on Thursday, also means a return to New Zealand for Hume.

Her memorable productions with NZ Opera include 2015's La Cenerentola, which has been picked up by companies in Leipzig, San Diego and Stockholm.

Hume appreciates a sense of ensemble she finds here, describing it as an "esprit de corps" and says it is valuable in making a work meaningful and joyful from within then sharing that feeling with an audience.

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The gypsy Carmen is the core of Hume's take on the opera, based on Prosper Merimee's 1845 novella. "She's a heroine, not a villain and not a bad girl," Hume says. "She is a strong-willed feminist, ahead of her time and, as many of the great brains of feminism do, can irritate people and make men feel uncomfortable."

A sense of fate and predestination hangs over Merimee's story and Bizet's opera. For Hume, it's a vindication of her conception of the character.

"Carmen has a prescient sense of death coming for her and she faces it with an extraordinary courage and a great sense of ownership."

It's this provocative and confrontational behaviour that contributed to the opera's miserable reception at its 1875 premiere, Hume believes. "However, all these years later, we're not the same audience. The feminist movement has happened and you've got a director and a Carmen who wouldn't put up with any of that rubbish. She's just like me and the girlfriends I've got."

She is particularly happy with the Georgian mezzo Nino Surguladze who has transformed her character's death into an art form. "She knows it's coming and can't escape; so she embraces it and that, to me, is absolute heroism."

US tenor Tom Randle plays Don Jose whose doomed relationship with Carmen threads through the opera.

"It's a terribly sad story," Hume says, but she has little sympathy for this anti-hero. "Jose's weakness and insecurity might be part of the picture but he has a violent streak too, with a background of stalking, domestic violence and murder.

"Watching their relationship play out is like being a spectator at a really bad break-up and I'm on Carmen's side."

Catching up with responses to Carmen from its Wellington season this month, the look of the production is an important part of its success. One reviewer talks of almost being able to smell the streets of Seville when the curtains open.

Sets, reconstructed for New Zealand and newly designed as modular units, allow for smooth, effective transitions from a Seville streetscape to Lillas Pastia's tavern and the stark alley where the final confrontation between the two lovers is played out.
Most importantly, for Hume, is the setting, which she describes as "turn-of-the-century industrial, with a touch of grunge", with none of the easy Spanish cliches audiences might expect.

Matthew Marshall handles the lighting. New technology allows a combination of LED and tungsten lights, underlining the duality Hume feels is central to the work. "From the gritty reality of cigarettes and cards to sweeping, epic statements about life and death and fate and destiny, Matt's lighting will catch it all."

What: Carmen
Where and when: Aotea Centre, Thursday, followed by June 24 at 7.30pm; June 27 at 6.30pm; June 29 at 7.30pm and July 1 at 5pm.