Everything you need to know about the world’s most popular opera.
Who was the composer?
Georges Bizet (birth name: Alexandre César Léopold Bizet) was born to a wigmaker-turned-singing-teacher father and mother who was an accomplished pianist.
He was a gifted pianist and composer, but was generally unlucky in his lifetime. He was a prolific composer, entering competitions (but rarely winning prizes), premiering new orchestral and vocal works (but rarely winning praise). He found he could make more money arranging other people’s music than composing his own.
His untimely death at 36 was actually the best thing that could have happened to his career: just three months after Carmen had premiered to a disparaging press, a special performance of his last opera in honour of his death won public hearts.
He also wrote The Pearlfishers, which contains one of the most beautiful (and thus famous) duets in opera.
What happens in the story?
Small-town boy Don José is serving with the army far from home. His fellow soldiers – indeed the whole town – are captivated by the strange allure of a gypsy woman, Carmencita. He thinks only of home, his mother, and the pretty Micaëla, a young girl who comes to deliver a letter from home.
Carmen has no patience for the men that fawn at her feet – but she is intrigued by the shy Don José.
Arrested for beginning a fight, Carmen seduces Don José to win her freedom – and convinces him to desert the army to join her in the gypsy life of liberty.
But her wandering eye has already found another lover: the dashing bullfighter, Escamillo.
Don José’s jealousy is fierce, Escamillo’s suit is determined, Carmen’s fate is set in the cards…
Who are the main players?
Carmen – a woman
Don José – a soldier
Escamillo – a bullfighter
Micaëla – Don José’s fiancee
What’s the big hit?
Take your pick!
Carmen’s sultry Habanera pops up in films, television shows and advertisements all the time. It’s incredibly catchy.
Escamillo’s Toreador is so impressive it made it to Bugs Bunny, and Don José’s heartstring-pulling Flower Song is a romantic classic.
Here is Jonas Kaufmann performing it for The Royal Opera:
Something to listen out for?
You don’t have to listen hard to notice the way Bizet incorporates exotic Spanish music into the score – the Seguidilla that Carmen dances in the hillside, accompanied by castanets, and the Habanera based on an original Spanish folk song.
[Spoiler alert] Following Carmen throughout the opera is a motif symbolising fate, which sounds again and again as her fate takes shape: when she throws her flower to Don José, as she reads her cards in the mountains and sees her death, as she rejects Don José and tells him to leave with Micaëla, and finally, played loudly as Don José stabs her at the bullfight.
A little history
Carmen got off to a rough start. Commissioned by the Opéra-Comique to write an opera, Bizet began composing a score for Mérimée‘s short story Carmen. But the opera house baulked at the risqué story, and stopped Bizet in his tracks. Two years later, the management changed and Carmen started production – but even then, things didn’t go smoothly.
The orchestra and the Chorus complained the score was unplayable and unsingable in parts.
After Bizet’s death, Carmen was revived in Vienna and then London and hailed a success. It is now credited as a forerunner of the “Verismo” movement, where opera composers portrayed normal (read – middle or lower class) people in a realistic style. His melodies evoked the colour and culture of Andalusian Spain.
Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Brahms all praised the work, with Wagner saying “Here, thank God, at last for a change is somebody with ideas in his head.”
- Carmen is an unusual female protagonist in the world of opera: a picture of strength and vitality, smoking and fighting on stage, dancing and seducing with no thought for her honour or reputation.
- When the opera first premièred, the Chorus were indignant that they were expected to fight and smoke on stage, rather than just standing in a line and singing!
- Carmen has inspired countless adaptations – including a 2001 movie called Carmen: the Hip Hopera, starring Beyoncé Knowles!