I consider it a masterpiece in the fullest sense of the word: one of those rare compositions which seems to reflect most strongly in itself the musical tendencies of a whole generation.”

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Prosper Mérimée. It was written in 1845 and is an early example of realism. In addition to its unsentimental view of its characters’ lives, it contained other elements that fascinated the public, such as the allure of the foreign and the exotic. Its setting was in southern Spain and the main character was a gypsy, which highlighted an ethnic group the public found titillating. Mérimée used the framing device of a narrator, and his characters were coarse and unscrupulous. Carmen herself was a thief and the leader of a band of smugglers and bandits, of whom Don José was a member.
When Bizet was commissioned by the Opera-Comique Theater to write a full-length opera in

1873, he actively pushed for the Mérimée novella to be used as the basis for the libretto. He worked closely with the librettists, Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, to shape the libretto, even writing some of the words himself. The resulting opera differed from Mérimée’s story in several ways. The realist setting was retained, but the narrator was eliminated. The Carmen character became one of the smugglers, not the leader, and her criminal activities were minimized. She was portrayed more as a femme fatale and in many ways her character was ennobled. The role of Don José was also softened, showing his downfall and making him more of a victim. The characters Micaëla and Escamillo were created to serve as foils for Carmen and Don José. These changes streamlined the story and heightened the drama.

In the opera, Bizet clearly defines Carmen as a woman who had deliberately thought through

her philosophy of life and refuses to depart from it. For Carmen, to be free and independent is

primary. She has rejected all restraints of accepted society. The fact that Carmen is a gypsy

reinforces this independent, outside-respected-society image. Conversely, Don José has been raised in a small village with a strict, moral upbringing. For him marriage is a commitment by two people to be faithful to one another. The conflict between them arises when Don José is confronted with Carmen’s philosophy, which is in direct opposition to his own. The introduction of Micaëla and Escamillo sharpen this conflict. Micaëla represents the moral society in which Don José was raised and symbolizes his ideal woman. Don José feels great passion for Carmen but also wants the same relationship with her that he might have had with Micaëla. Carmen does not share his values and therein lies Don José’s downfall. Escamillo is Carmen’s ideal lover. He is patient and does not require her eternal faithfulness. He adores her but doesn’t need to possess her. The opera Carmen is more about the downfall or transformation of Don José than about

Carmen herself. Even though Carmen is the central focus of the opera, she is the catalyst that undermines Don José’s life.
Some of these changes were a result of the needs of stage adaptation and the intent of the

librettists and composer to be true to their art and present a work of significance. Other changes,

however, were clearly an attempt to fashion a plot that would be acceptable to the patrons of the

Opéra-Comique. Unfortunately, the brilliance of the opera, its directness, its characterizations and its musical realism was too much for the opening night audience, the critics and even Parisian society at large.

The failure of this early example of French vérisme opera and its subject matter has been

Well documented. After the end of the fourth act (an act received in icy silence by the audience),

Bizet walked the streets of Paris all night, frustrated by the public’s inability to understand his

music and what he was trying to achieve. He retired to the country, depressed by the outpouring

of criticism, and believed his greatest work was a failure. Within three months he was dead,

having suffered two heart attacks.

Interest in the opera was not dead, however. Many famous composers were effusive in

their praise. Some in the musical community felt the opera might be better received as a grand

opera. A fellow composer and friend of Bizet, Ernest Guiraud, composed recitatives to replace

the spoken dialogue so that Carmen could be presented as a grand opera for its premiere at the

State Opera House in Vienna on October 23, 1875. In little more than four months after Bizet’s

untimely death, his opera was a resounding success. Carmen had been produced in Vienna as a

spectacle, with a ballet added in Act IV using music from another Bizet opera, as well as an

expanded bullfighters procession. The composer Johannes Brahms saw the Viennese production

20 times and was fulsome in his praise. Soon afterward the opera was presented in Brussels

with the newly composed recitatives but without the extra ballet and spectacle. Again, it was a

sensation. In the next few years Carmen made the rounds of the great opera houses of the world

before returning to success in Paris eight years later.

The triumph of Bizet’s Carmen had been predicted by a towering figure of the music world, the Russian composer Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky. He had seen an early performance of Carmen and stated in a letter, “Carmen is a masterpiece in every sense of the word; that is to say, one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch….I am convinced that in 10 years Carmen will be the most popular opera in the whole world." Those prophetic words have been borne out by history.

Realism, Naturalisme and Verismo

In Italian they called it verismo, in French naturalism. Bizet’s Carmen was the starting point of a movement which increasingly probed the problems of modern life by representing a series of realistic events. Carmen was an opéra comique where “realistic” spoken dialogue was essential, communicating more like a play than an opera, and raising more contemporary questions than mythical or historical operas.

And there’s more local colour too: here are real Spanish dances and gypsies girls singing. Bizet originally wrote Carmen’s entry as an operatic aria, with all its clichés. But he replaced it in the staging process, having found a habanera – a dance-song – in a book of South American cabaret songs. Would Carmen have been such a success without this flash of inspiration? Definitely not! Suddenly we had real events onstage: not just a heroine singing about herself, but presenting her body, and her ideals of free love, to the characters around her. Strong stuff for an opera house whose function was basically a marriage bureau for chaperoned females! This was the start of a trend which affected opera profoundly. Suddenly in tune with literature and painting, it became interested in contemporary life: observation rather that literary research became the source for subject-matter.

Carmen's entry into the canon of Western operas gave rise to several revisionist interpretations, each of them foregrounding a particular issue of concern to the society and culture that produced it. A production in Moscow in 1925, for example, made over Carmen as a Jewish Communist girl fighting for the rights of the workers in a cigarette factory. Nazi productions in the thirties, however, focused more on the threat of gypsy crime and miscegenation (reproduction by parents of different races). As a text that exists in relation to both the original Prosper Mérimée story and to various productions of Carmen, Carmen Jones can be read as a reconfiguration of race, class, and gender issues that are already present in its previous guises.

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