Spotlight on: CARMEN


At Seattle Opera May 2019

Music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy

The Story

Long Story Short

Free-spirited woman and uptight soldier ruin each others’ lives.

Who’s Who?

Costume design sketches by Gary McCann

Don José, a soldier, has anger management issues.

Carmen is a force of nature.

Escamillo is the bullfighter who lures Carmen away from José.

Micaëla is a sweet girl from José’s hometown.

Frasquita and Mercédès are Carmen’s flirtatious friends.

Remendado and Dancaïre are Carmen’s smuggler friends.

Zuniga is the captain of the guard and José’s commanding officer.

Moralès, a soldier, finds Micaëla attractive.

Lillas Pastia runs a disreputable tavern on the outskirts of the city.

Where & When?

Originally, Seville and some nearby mountains in the mid-nineteenth century.

What's Going On?

“Love is a bohemian child, a wild bird that knows no law. If you don’t love me, I love you: and if I love you, watch out!” says Carmen to an admiring crowd who is hanging on her every word. But she has eyes only for Don José, who’s on guard duty nearby—and who’s trying desperately not to notice her. She takes a flower from her hair and tosses it at José before heading back to her job rolling cigarettes in a factory.

José is visited by Micaëla, who brings him a letter and a kiss from his mother back home. His mother begs José to marry Micaëla, but he is already smitten with Carmen. Carmen picks a fight at work in order to get herself arrested. While José is taking her to jail, she seduces him, promising to love him if he lets her go. Don José helps her escape and goes to jail himself.

After a month in jail, José meets up with Carmen at Lillas Pastia’s tavern, a local haunt of the bullfighter Escamillo. Carmen manipulates José into deserting the army and running away with her, but her affection fades as she gets to know him. As she tires of him and becomes more interested in Escamillo, José becomes increasingly possessive of her. Escamillo tracks Carmen to their mountain hideout, and only the timely arrival of Micaëla stops José from killing his rival. Micaëla begs José to come home to his dying mother. He agrees to do so, but swears that Carmen will see him again.

Opera Philidelphia, Carmen, 2018 © Steven Pisano

Several weeks later, Carmen bravely waits to confront José outside the bullring in Seville, although she knows he is bound to kill her. When she refuses to come back to him, he violently attacks and stabs her—at the very moment Escamillo slaughters the bull inside the ring. In the end, José wails, “Arrest me, I killed her...oh, my beloved Carmen!” and takes his own life.

Further Learning

Our friends at the Seattle Public Library have complied a list of Carmen-related recordings, books, and scores for further exploration.

Listen For

The Catchiest Tunes Ever Written

Who can’t hum the slinky descending melody of Carmen’s “Habanera” or the familiar, strutting march of Escamillo’s “Toreador Song?” Audiences revel in the seductive strains of Carmen’s “Seguidilla,” in the wild dance at Lillas Pastia’s, the fervent prayers of Micaëla, and the deeply felt romantic music of Don José.

Music of Sex and Death

Carmen features a wonderful idée fixe or musical “obsession,” a deadly melody that snakes its way downwards using chromatic notes. This technique is often used to inject unease or suspense into the music. This sexy, dangerous melody first appears to interrupt the bustling good humor of the overture. It reappears when Carmen first tosses her flower at Don José, and forever after chronicles how Don José’s fate becomes entangled with that of his femme fatale.

A French Fantasy of Spain

Carmen isn’t Spanish. It’s a French opera. When Carmen was written, Spain’s world empire was disintegrating. To Bizet and his French audiences, Spain was a quaint, exotic land, and Carmen is to a certain extent a fanciful travelogue showcasing French stereotypes and fantasies about Spain: alluring untameable women, poor Romani laborers in sweatshops, and an obsession with bullfighting. Bizet’s score memorably features dance forms with a Latin flavor: the sexy “Habanera” (originally from Cuba) and the vigorous Castilian “Seguidilla.”

Where, When, & Why Was this Opera Written?

Georges Bizet, photograph by Étienne Carjat, 1875

Bizet proposed the subject of Carmen to the management of Paris’s Opéra-Comique in 1871. Unlike the Paris Opéra, with its vast budget and grandiose five-act spectacle operas, the Opéra-Comique produced opera on a manageable scale. Its shows always featured spoken dialogue and simple, catchy music; the stories tended to be simple morality tales that confirmed the conventional values of the theater’s bourgeois audience.

The public at the Opéra-Comique was accustomed to the light, decorative music Bizet wrote for his comic gypsies and smugglers:

Carmen was guaranteed to shock the Opéra-Comique’s middle-class subscribers. Most of them couldn’t imagine a woman smoking, let alone having a mind of her own. An early review reveals the viciously misogynistic attitudes of Carmen’s first audience:

“A plague on these females vomited from hell!...To preserve the morale and the behavior of the impressionable dragoons and toreadors who surround this demoiselle, she should be gagged, a stop put to the unbridled twisting of her hips. The pathological condition of this unfortunate woman, consecrated unceasingly and pitilessly to the fires of the fortunately a rare case, more likely to inspire the solicitude of physicians than to interest the decent spectators who come to the Opéra-Comique accompanied by their wives and daughters...ingenious orchestral details, risky dissonances, instrumental subtlety cannot express the uterine frenzies of Mlle. Carmen.”

The opera caused a scandal, devastating Bizet, who thought he had written something new and different. “Don’t you see all these bourgeoisie have not understood a wretched word of the work I have created for them?” the composer asked a friend. His resulting depression worsened his poor health, and he died within three months. The poor man had no idea of the triumph Carmen would enjoy later that year when it was produced in Vienna, for a more open-minded audience. From there, Carmen went on to conquer the world.

Where'd They Get this Story?

Carmen began life as a novella by the French writer Prosper Mérimée, who bridged the gap between the Romantics (such as Dumas and Hugo) and the Realists (including Flaubert and Zola). Mérimée had traveled much in Spain, and wrote his Carmen in first person. The narrator, an archeologist and traveler like Mérimée, meets Don José, who tells him his life story. Bizet’s brilliant librettists, Meilhac and Halévy, preserved the spirit of Mérimée’s story while altering it radically. They cut Carmen’s husband and invented Micaëla and Escamillo. Their libretto not only inspired Bizet’s amazing music, it became the starting place for countless Carmens on film and TV. Among the greats of Hollywood who have retold the story of Carmen are Cecil B. DeMille, Theda Bara, Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Tom and Jerry, Beyoncé, and countless others.

Edna Purviance (Carmen) and Charlie Chaplin (Darn Hosiery) in A Burlesque on Carmen

Lithograph of Act 1 in the premier performance, by Pierre-Auguste Lamy, 1875

Same Story/New Lens

You may have heard about a 2018 production of Carmen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, Italy. This theater made a bold choice. Carmen kills Don José, not the other way around, reversing the ending Bizet wrote.

This choice was made to protest the significant number of Italian women killed each year in domestic disputes. This type of crime is common enough that Italians have a word femminicido, “femicide,” to describe the problem.

None of us here at Seattle Opera saw the production, so we can’t say exactly how the change worked dramatically. And one must think very carefully before changing a classic. But it is interesting to contemplate how many productions of Carmen happen all over Europe—never mind all over the world—in a year. Does repeating the old story so often—with its femminicido ending—make it normal or acceptable? If the aim of the change was increased awareness, then perhaps the protest worked.

What kind of production is coming to Seattle?

A co-production with Opera Philadelphia, this sizzling new Carmen showcases the debuting creative team of Paul Curran (director), Gary McCann (set and costume designer), and Paul Hackenmueller (lighting). They have set Carmen in a hot Latin city—whether Seville, or someplace in Africa or the Caribbean—with three grand, multi-level sets and a wealth of vivid, sexy costumes reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century.

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