Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) is one of those ever popular works. The music is fun and the tunes are catchy. The opera has made its mark on pop culture, having been heard in everything from commercials to Tom & Jerry. It was even the basis for an entire episode of Hey Arnold, a popular Nickelodeon cartoon from the 1990s. However, behind its hummable tunes and sunny Andalusian atmosphere, it is a tightly crafted music drama about this battle of the sexes that marked a turning point in operatic history.
During the 19th century, opera in Paris was institutionalized in a way that was different from any other country. If someone desired to go to the opera, they would have to decide which type of opera they want to see. Italian opera would only perform at the Théâtre Italien. French Grand Opera, large scale political dramas by composers like Meyerbeer, was the domain of the Opéra, and the Opéra Comique performed lighthearted works which were ideal entertainment for families or for dates with chaperones. Therefore it may seem strange that an opera about a soldier driven insane by his obsession with an unrestrained gypsy should have its world premiere at a theater best known for family entertainment.
The point was not lost on Bizet’s contemporaries. To say nothing of the opera’s straightforward depiction of relationships between men and women, death was a rare occurrence on stage at the Opéra Comique. To compensate for this, Bizet struck a compromise with the theater management, he would populate the story with stock characters and upbeat musical numbers familiar to that theater’s patrons. This was how Escamillo, the bullfighter, and the famous “Torreador” song were born. Despite the popularity of the aria, Bizet was not impressed. He believed that the aria was a major concession to the management of the Opéra Comique. He was able to include the death scene by promising that the last act would be concerned primarily with the pomp and circumstance of a bullfight on a sunny day in Seville, and that Carmen’s death would happen quickly and not upstage the rest of the act. Whether or not Bizet delivered on that promise, is up to the viewer. Despite that, what Bizet created is a compositional marvel; true he may have had to include stock characters and catchy ensembles, but the way he employs them revealed a true master at work.
The main characters seems to be divided into two groups: on the one side, those that are experienced in carefree like Carmen and Escamillo, and on the other, those that are naïve and innocent who get taken advantage of by others, such as Don José and Micaëla, his girlfriend. The sexier music full of Spanish inflections goes to Carmen and her friends, while the lush romantic music, we would normally associate with 19th century opera, goes to Don José and his long-suffering Micaëla. In the final duet which features Carmen’s murder, the two forms seamlessly combine.
Lastly, Carmen forms part of a transition which affected opera as a whole. As the art form reached the turn of the 20th century, there was a shift in the genre where stories about real people in commonplace circumstances took precedence over stories of Kings and Queens and nobility took place. This transformation began in 1853 with the premiere of Verdi’s La Traviata. Not only is that work about a courtesan, but it is also the first opera where the main character dies of natural causes. The transformation continued with Carmen. It an opera about a soldier, his girlfriend, a bullfighter and a gypsy; people you would probably find walking down the streets of Seville, but the music contains a lot of local color. For the first time, a composer set an opera in Spain and included a great deal of music with Spanish flair. This is a great contrast to Mozart’s Don Giovanni from 1787. In that case, it’s basically an Italian opera set in Spain. There is only a little bit of Spanish dance music during the ball at the end of the first act, but here, Latin music is woven into the score, not only does the “Torreador” song have Spanish inflections, but Carmen’s Act I entrance, the famous “Habanera” is based on a popular dance from Cuba.
Realism in Carmen also extends to the text. The characters speak to each other plainly in idiomatic French. In contrast, in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the characters who largely consist of Gods and other mythic creatures, speak in a long-winded poetic style that suits the epic structure of the work. In Siegfried, for example, the hero fights with a dragon. Before killing it, Siegfried says, “I don’t think I would very much enjoy being eaten by you.” By comparison, Carmen’s last action before her death, is to forcefully return a ring that Don José had once given her. Different singers perform this act with varying degrees of exasperation, but one thing is always true: when she returns her ring, she simply says, “Take it.” It is a simple command spoken in simple everyday words by ordinary people.
Opera Company of Brooklyn Presents: Carmen on Saturday, August 27 from 7 PM to 9:45 PM at 600 W 218th Street, 1 G, NY, NY 10034. Tickets are a suggested $20 in advance, $40 day of and can be reserved online here. For more information about the production and cast, click here.