This year's opera at the splendidly enterprising Lakes Area Music Festival was Bizet's "Carmen." It played to a packed audience Saturday evening at the Tornstrom Auditorium in Brainerd.

It wasn't easy fitting an opera into the Tornstrom. Located in the old Washington High School building, the theater has no orchestra pit. With a cast of 80 singers and players, space was always going to be an issue.

The solution? Wedge the orchestra along the back of the main stage area, using the small thrust extension for most of the action.

The space crunch called for a minimal set. Singer/actors worked with a bare-bones collection of planked risers, with wooden stools and tables. Tassels draped down from the flies, shrinking and humanizing the Tornstrom's grand proscenium. And then the tassels were lighted with varying colors to match the opera's changing scenes.

Within these tight parameters, director J.J. Hudson did a sterling job moving his characters about the stage, especially when animating crowded set pieces such as the Act 2 gathering in Lillas Pastia's seedy tavern.

The Pastia scene featured one of the evening's vocal highlights, a quintet involving Carmen sidekicks Mercédès and Frasquita, sung by sopranos Bergen Baker and Siena Forest respectively. The quintet went off like a firecracker. And the Baker-Forest team made sparks again in Act 3's fateful card scene, their spunkiness and feisty vocalism igniting the verve and joie de vivre in Bizet's music.

Carmen herself, sung by Canadian mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule, was reserved and enigmatic by comparison. Electing for a slow-burn suggestiveness where most Carmens peddle raw sexuality, Sproule insinuated rather than excited in her physical gestures. She sang the part fulsomely.

As Don José, Carmen's jilted lover, singer Mackenzie Whitney was more combustible. He sang a heartfelt, lyrical "Flower Song," but there was steel in his tenor, too — particularly when raging infatuation finally engulfs him at the opera's bloody conclusion.

José's nemesis in love, the bullfighter Escamillo, was ringingly sung by baritone Andrew Lovato. It was good, for once, to hear the famous "Toreador Song" presented as something other than strutting triumphalism. Lovato gave it a dignified nobility, matching Bizet's orchestration.

The chorus sang punchily, and director Hudson got them acting effectively in the gaps between their vocal contributions. Ten children from the Northfield Youth Choirs participated, making a sprightly impression with their chirpy music.

Their presence in the cast underlined an important aspect of the Lakes Area Music Festival: It puts heavy emphasis on involving Minnesota music lovers — from Brainerd and beyond — hundreds of whom volunteer as hosts, ushers and organizers over the three-week festival.

This vibrantly enjoyable "Carmen," crisply led by conductor Andrew Altenbach, richly repaid these locals for their involvement. It was a genuine community achievement.

Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.