In French with English Captions

About the Composer

The life of the young Georges Bizet was filled with music. Both his parents were musicians, and just before he turned ten he entered the Paris Conservatory. He studied with Gounod and the other important French opera composers, won all sorts of prizes in school, and made some money on the side arranging scores and playing piano at opera rehearsals. One of his first, frothiest, and most operetta-like compositions, Docteur Miracle, won a competition at the Bouffes-Parisiens theater in 1856. It proceeded to win the Prix de Rome as well, and Bizet followed his luck to Italy for three years, where he soaked up the Mediterranean sun and Mediterranean musical culture.

While there he made an unsuccessful attempt at writing a comic opera in the Italian style, Don Procopio. He also had trouble writing in the more lofty German style. He was always coming up with ideas for operas, including such substantial stories as Hamlet, Macbeth, Don Quixote, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he never got very far. He even attempted to write his own opera libretto, an adaptation of a play by Molière, but gave up before finishing it.

His first successful opera, the exotic Pearl Fishers of 1863, demonstrated his gift for writing beautiful melodies, and matched a serious dramatic story with a beautiful Far Eastern setting. Yet it was only performed eighteen times. His next opera appeared four years later: The Fair Maid of Perth. It, too, received only eighteen performances. In 1872, Bizet’s opera Djamileh, based on a story by his friend Alfred de Musset, was received with indifference.

The period between these operas was filled with half-completed operas, discussions about potential operas, inspirations, dreams, and disappointments. Bizet had trouble concentrating; although he had plenty of great ideas, they never seemed to add up to anything. He was plagued by uncertainty about the value of his work and found dealing with the business and management side of the theater extremely aggravating. Eventually, all these issues hindered his ability to compose. He wrote a total of seventeen operas, almost half of which were never performed.

His personal life, too, was plagued by bad luck. His disastrous affair with his mother’s maid resulted in a son he couldn’t acknowledge, and in 1869 he married the twenty-year-old Geneviève Halévy, the mentally unstable daughter of his teacher. Together they had a son who later committed suicide.

Georges Bizet died at the tragically early age of 36, three months after the unsuccessful opening of Carmen. When he died, he believed he had failed again; the poor man had no idea of the immense popularity Carmen would enjoy today. Many historians of music speculate that Bizet was headed for a brilliant career full of successful operas.

Carmen at the Opéra-Comique

Bizet first proposed the subject of Carmen to the librettists at the Opéra-Comique in 1871. Unlike the Paris Opéra, with its vast budget and grandiose spectacle operas in five acts, the Opéra-Comique produced opera on a manageable scale. Its operas 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 bourgeouis audience.

Carmen was guaranteed to shock the Opéra-Comique’s middle-class subscribers when it finally premiered there in 1875. Most of them couldn’t imagine a woman smoking, let alone having a mind of her own and doing all the other things that Carmen does. An early review reveals the attitude of Carmen’s first audience:

“There were Andalusians with sun-burned breasts…a plague on these females vomited from hell!…this Castilian licentiousness! It is a delirium of castanets, of leers…of provocative hip swinging, of knife stabs…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 flesh…is 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.”

Bizet was devastated. “Don’t you see all these bourgeoisie have not understood a wretched word of the work I have created for them?” he asked a friend. His depression worsened his poor health, and he died within a few months.

Carmen Lives On

Carmen found a more open-minded audience later that year, when it was produced in Vienna. But the Vienna Staatsoper, like the Paris Opéra, never presented operas with dialogue; so the dialogues of Carmen were made into recitatives, musical passages in which the singers declaim their words without tunes, and a ballet was added. In this form, the opera conquered the world, quickly becoming one of the most popular operas ever. To this day, Carmen is performed everywhere people enjoy opera—and usually with a mixture of dialogue and recitatives.

Carmen has become one of the classic myths of our culture, and everyone gets a chance to weigh in on it. Some of their comments:

“Bizet has tried to show real men and women, dazzled, tortured by passion…whose torment, jealousy, and mad infatuation are interpreted to us by the orchestra turned creator and poet.”
—an early French critic

“José, although he has plenty to sing, is a silly dupe, in whom little interest is felt; Escamillo is a conceited and brainless animal, and almost all the other personages are disreputable, except Micaela, of whom little is seen. The heroine commands no respect and little sympathy, but the character has been so skillfully drawn, the willfulness of the gay coquette is so piquantly painted, that the spectator is much too fascinated to inquire whether he is justified in giving her his smiles and applause.”
—an early English critic

“The success of Bizet’s opera is altogether due to the attraction, such as it is, of seeing a pretty and respectable middle-class young lady, expensively dressed, harmlessly pretending to be a wicked person.”
—George Bernard Shaw

“I would have gone to the end of the earth to embrace the composer of Carmen.”
—Johannes Brahms

“It’s music without pretensions to profundity, but so delightful in its simplicty, so lively (not contrived, but sincere) that I got to know it by heart from beginning to end.”
—Pyotr Tchaikovsky

“Here at last for a change is someone with ideas, thank God!”
—Richard Wagner

“Such a work makes one perfect! One becomes a masterpiece oneself…I envy Bizet for having had the courage for this sensibility which had hitherto had no language in the cultivated music of Europe—for this more southern, brown, burnt sensibility. How the yellow afternoons of its happiness do us good! We look into the distance as we listen: did we ever find the sea smoother? And how soothingly the Moorish dance speaks to us? How even our insatiability for once gets to know satiety in this lascivious melancholy!”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Other Versions of the Carmen Story

Carmen began life as a novella by the French writer Prosper Merimée, who bridged the gap between the Romantics (such as Chateaubriand and Hugo) and the Realists (including Flaubert and Zola). Merimée had traveled much in Spain, and wrote his Carmen almost in first person. The narrator, an archelogist and traveler like Merimée, meets Don José on several occasions and listens as José tells him his life story. The novella is both Romantic, in its framing device and spirit of adventurous travel in a faraway land, and realistic in its portrayal of crimes of passion among the lower classes.

Georges Bizet worked with two brilliant librettists, Meilhac and Halévy, who preserved the spirit of Merimée’s story while radically altering the structure. They chose four strong turning points in the story to dramatize, cut Carmen’s husband, and invented Micaela 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 reenacted the story of Carmen we find Cecil B. DeMille, Theda Bara, Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Tom and Jerry, and countless others. Watch out for the film Carmen Jones, which stars Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte and features Bizet’s music set to new words by Oscar Hammerstein II, and also for the wonderful Spanish film directed by Carlos Saura, which sets the story in a Flamenco dance troupe.

The Exotic in Carmen

Artists in late nineteenth-century France—painters, poets, musicians—were obsessed with the exotic, which they defined as any culture or country that wasn’t late nineteenth-century France. Most exotic art deals with the Far East or Africa, but even Spain—whose world empire was disintegrating during the nineteenth century, unlike the French and British empires—was, to the French, as a quaint land of unusual, backwards customs. Merimée capitalized on the fascination of this exotic location in his novella, Carmen, and Bizet built on this by imitating Spanish music in his opera. Among the‘exotic’ Spanish elements in Carmen you’ll notice the following:

Smoking. Tobacco came to Spain and England from the Americas, but didn’t become the huge industry (and the huge cause of cancer) that it is today until industrialization. In those days, poor women like Carmen and her friends were hired to roll cigarettes; nowadays, machines do so much more quickly and cheaply. When Carmen first saunters onstage during her break, the cigarette in her hand is a great symbol of her character: foreign, sexy, and deadly.

Gypsies. The Romany people, first called “gypsies” because someone thought they came from Egypt, are an ancient race from Northern India. They migrated to Europe during the Middle Ages and have been persecuted ever since because their nomadic tribes inevitably come into conflict with local landowners and political authorities. Spain has a long history both of gypsies and of attempts to expel, convert, or exterminate them. Carmen’s gypsy background automatically makes her dangerous, different, and outside the laws which govern you and me.

Bullfighting. The Spanish National Spectacle plays an important role in the story of Carmen. In fact, bullfighting has a long and colorful history. Bullfighting became a spectator sport in the days of ancient Rome. It was inhumane then as now, but keep in mind, other popular Roman sports included feeding Christians to lions and watching gladiators kill each other! In an afternoon at the bullring, matadors typically slaughter six bulls. By the way, the heroes of the bullring are called “matador” or “picador” and not “Toreador,” as M. Bizet and his librettists would have us believe.

Listening to Carmen

The first audiences to hear Carmen, at the Opéra-Comique in 1875, complained that Bizet had written difficult, ugly, Wagnerian music. The accusation sounds ridiculous to us, but keep in mind these people (a) only knew Wagner by hearsay, and (b) were used to hearing operas so musically pale we don’t even bother performing them today. There is something Wagnerian about Bizet’s Carmen, but it’s not the musical language: it’s the idea that the music should tell the story of the opera.

Carmen is an opera of great tunes. Whether they are connected by dialogue, recitative, or some combination of the two, the musical numbers of Carmen are famous throughout the world because they’re such memorable tunes. Who can’t hum the slinky descending tune of Carmen’s “Habanera” or the familiar strutting march of Escamillo’s “Toreador Song?” Audiences revel in these melodies, in the seductive strains of Carmen’s “Seguidilla,” in the wild dance at Lillas Pastia’s, the fervent prayers of Micaela and the deeply felt romantic music of Don José.

But the magic of the opera lies in how the music tells the story. Bizet possessed an extremely fertile melodic gift; he could write hit tunes with the best of them. But in Carmen he did so, in each case, in order to advance his plot. Not only are each of his melodies beautiful and memorable, they are always exactly how that character would behave at that moment in the drama.

Bizet follows Wagner, perhaps, in putting his great music at the service of the story. But that’s about as far as it goes. Some contemporary musicians accused Bizet of writing a Wagnerian leitmotif into Carmen, a recognizable tune that returns again and again in each act of the opera. The Carmen motif—a dark melody that snakes its way downwards using chromatic notes, notes ordinarily forbidden by the rules of western harmony—sounds dangerous and sexy; we first hear it interrupt the bustling good humor of the overture, and then again as Carmen tosses her flower at Don José. But it isn’t a true leitmotif, which would probably be much shorter and less obvious and would change its shape each time it turned up. Instead, it’s a very simple and effective French musical device, known as an idée fixe or “obsession,” representing the power Carmen has—and will continue to have—over all of us.

Recommended Recordings

Deutsche Gramophon / Conductor: Claudio Abbado
Carmen: Teresa Berganza
Don José: Plácido Domingo

EMI / Conductor: Georges Prêtre
Carmen: Maria Callas
Don José: Nicolai Gedda

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