‘Carmen’ Has Her Finger on Opera ‘Pulse’

Gypsies… brigadiers… toreros… smugglers… just your average “night at the opera?”

I don’t think so.

Arguably the most popular opera of all time, Carmen contains more hit tunes than any opera ever composed. People who’ve never listened to a note of opera probably have heard tunes from this work, if only in an elevator. The opera may not be as “high-brow” as many others, but the wideness of its appeal is indisputable.

Photo: Wolfgang Staudt
Photo: Wolfgang Staudt

Carmen is one of those murderous female characters one often finds in movies such as Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. This fact heightens our fascination with her. Her operatic journey, based on the novel by French writer Prosper Mérimée, with a libretto by Meilhac and Halévy, is one of those timeless, guilty pleasures we can never get enough of.

I discovered the truth of that statement in my first season as a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera. No matter how early I arrived in the pit to practice, whenever Carmen was on the program, I was always preceded by an elegant, white-haired Italian gentleman who, I soon discovered, had been one of Toscanini’s concertmasters with the NBC Symphony. Curious as to why this venerable musician felt compelled to practice music he obviously knew backwards, I finally asked him one night why he continually did so.

“I never get tired of it,” he replied wistfully in his charming Italian accent.

If that isn’t a testament to the immortality of this work, I can’t imagine what is.

Bizet opera by Liebler & Maass Lithographers, 1896
Bizet opera by Liebler & Maass Lithographers, 1896

The first production of Carmen took place in 1875 at the Opéra Comique in Paris. The public found it shocking. Nietzsche later called it “wicked, subtle & fatalistic.” Bizet had his work cut out for him. From the outset he was involved in an uphill battle to change the character of this theater from simple-minded and sentimental to more psychological and personal. This was a “family” theater, where marriages were discussed and arranged. To present a work about a wanton woman, who flits from lover to lover and hangs out with grim low lifes in an exotic setting among Spanish gypsies and bandits, was scandalous and unthinkable, at least in those times. These dayswe love scintillating, shocking stories. That wasn’t the case in France in the late nineteenth century.

Bizet saw no problem with the sexual innuendo, and resisted when the librettists urged him to tone down the piece for the French audience. Ultimately he gave in, and created music for two characters who did not appear in the original novel:  Escamillo, the brilliant, successful, torero who embodied male eroticism to Carmen and was a foil to Don José; and Micaela, the innocent contrast to the willful, sinful Carmen.

Carmen, possibly the greatest female character in all of opera, provides a study in contrasts. She’s a liar, a thief, unscrupulous but also independent. She fascinates, not only physically but also for her honesty and the intense violence of feelings. Cut me up, burn me, I’ll tell you nothing, she declares one moment, and teases, We’ll dance the seguidilla and drink Manzanilla the next. The contrast between her tragic intensity and lightness is dazzling. Si tu m’aimes, prends garde à toi:truer words were never spoken.

Yet Bizet made her a positive character, a champion of the defiance of the moral codes of the day, a heroine. Before Carmen, anti-heroes in opera were invariably male, like Don Giovanni. Fallen women, like Violetta in Traviata, atoned and paid the price for their wantonness at the end. Carmen, by contrast, never acknowledges any guilt, hangs out with ruffians, accepts her fate and is afraid of nothing. Even Brünnhilde was afraid of Wotan. Not Carmen. She is fearless. What a heroine! How can we not love her?

José, on the other hand, a country bumpkin from the provinces who understands little of the wicked ways of the big city, not to mention the wiles of a seductress like Carmen, gives into temptation and betrays his ideals early on. Thus he’s not as strong a character. There’s a good reason for the opera’s title.

The other characters appear briefly but are just as vivid and colorful: soldiers, ragamuffins, smugglers, the holiday crowd around the bullring, all form a background that pulsates with life. Bizet, as so many other composers of his time, loved the Spanish light and painted it masterfully with his orchestral colors. Add to this the Spanish dance rhythms, and you have a recipe for success – or so Bizet thought.

Even before the premiere, the composer met with hostility from behind the scenes. The orchestra declared much of the music unplayable; the women’s chorus rebelled at having to act and sing at the same time. The sole enthusiasm displayed on opening night was reserved for Micaela, Escamillo and the bullring music. The opera was a failure, and Bizet was devastated. Despite the patrons who continued to line up at the box office night after night, he remained inconsolable and died, heartbroken, on the night of the thirty-first performance, too soon to witness the opera’s huge critical and popular success when it was premiered in Vienna just months later.

Thus began the opera’s path to worldwide popularity. Bizet never lived to see it, but we are the lucky ones to enjoy his crowning achievement, performance after triumphant performance.