The years immediately preceding the composition of Carmen brought unprecedented disaster to France, and, especially, to Paris. Emperor Napoleon III’s ill-advised provocation of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 resulted in quick humiliation on the battlefield, followed by the emperor’s abdication and the German siege of Paris—during which, faced with starvation, the citizenry was reduced to slaughtering pets and zoo animals. After accepting degrading conditions of surrender, the people of Paris reacted by setting up an insurrectionist “commune,” which was quickly and brutally crushed by the national government.
When the smoke cleared, a dazed and traumatized Paris pulled itself together and resumed its role at the center of European culture. Hugo, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Gounod, Franck, Fauré, Massenet, Cézanne, and a host of other artistic, musical, and literary titans of the era were in residence. Deliberately forgetting the dark days of the siege and the suppression of the commune, Paris reinvented itself as the “City of Light. “ The culture of cafés and cabaret emerged, the galleries flourished. Musically, the Paris Opera continued, as it had for decades, to furnish grand opéra with massive productions based on lofty historical subjects, while the Opéra-comique entertained with vivid characters and a mixture of sung and spoken material. It was to the Opéra-comique that the wealthy and powerful families brought their sons and daughters for the very serious business of match-making in the presence of amusing and appropriately respectable musical theater.
And it was from the Opéra-comique that Georges Bizet received, in 1872, the commission for a new work. Now in his mid-thirties, Bizet had begun his career as the gifted son of a musical family, entering the Conservatoire at the age of nine and winning, along with every prize available to an aspiring composer, the praise and attention of Berlioz, Gounod, and Liszt.
By 1872, however, Bizet felt the pressure of advancing time and the urgent need to score a box office hit—particularly since he was still supporting himself and his family with his day jobs: copying music and giving music lessons. His first full-scale opera, The Pearl Fishers, had enjoyed some positive notice; his attempt at comedy, The Maid of Perth, had fallen flat. Still, because of Bizet’s good connections and obvious talent, the management of the Opéra-comique felt confident enough to assign him to work with the experienced playwrights Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac to produce a new opera—hopefully, a nice comical spectacle with a beautiful gypsy heroine and lots of Iberian and ethnic color. The slightly scandalous novella Carmen by the recently deceased Prosper Merimée, although tragic, provided a likely starting point for a piece which, initially, even Bizet expected to be jolly and bright.
From the start, however, the darker aspects of the novella took over the imagination of Bizet and his librettists. Catching wind of Bizet’s intentions, one leading diva of the day politely turned down the chance to sing the title role at the premiere. In one of the more fortunate incidents of operatic history, Célestine Galli-Marié, whose own lifestyle echoed the heroine’s free-loving, pleasure-seeking ideals, realized the potential of the role and agreed to star in the first production. Inspired and encouraged by Galli-Marié, by the id-driven characters of Merimee’s novella, and by the setting of urban poverty and rural lawlessness in nineteenth-century Spain, Bizet’s earlier promise as a composer blossomed into full-blown genius in a complex but brilliantly appealing score; for which the Opéra-comique, with its date-night-family-night audience, was not prepared. To make matters worse, the orchestra balked at the subtle and demanding parts, while the chorus rebelled and threatened to strike when faced with extra rehearsals and the demand that they act as well as sing. Management began to insist on a revised, happy ending to appease its audience’s perceived sensibilities; the librettists caved in, but Bizet stood firm.
Fortunately, Bizet had the diva on his side. When Galli-Marié threatened to walk out, the original ending stayed in place.
Operatic legend holds that the opening night of Carmen, on March 3, 1875, was an utter failure. And it is true that audience enthusiasm lagged as the drama rolled toward its inevitable bloody conclusion. Most, but not all of the published reviews were cool or downright unfavorable.
However, with Galli-Marié’s encouragement and in spite of managerial misgivings, the Opéra-comique kept the production onstage for nearly a year, with forty-seven more performances—comparable to a short but respectable run on Broadway today. And several of the opinion leaders who mattered immediately recognized the genius of Carmen. Composer Camille Saint-Saëns declared his admiration for the piece, and the powers in charge of the Vienna Court Opera were sufficiently intrigued to mount a production in October of that year.
And so it was in Vienna, Paris’s chief rival as a center of high culture, that Carmen scored the success Bizet had always dreamed of. The Viennese audience cheered the new masterpiece; significantly, both Brahms and Wagner, the opposing giants of late romanticism, proclaimed their admiration for the piece. Clearly, since there is little Brahms or Wagner in Bizet’s music, and almost no trace of the influence of Bizet in either Brahms or Wagner, both were cases of respectful astonishment at the quality of inspiration and execution on Bizet’s part. Within the next decade, Carmen triumphed at all the major houses in Europe, finally returning to Paris in 1883—largely due to public demand for the work—as part of the fin-de-siecle explosion of artistic culture in the French capital.
All of which came too late, alas, for Georges Bizet. Although the relative lack of success of Carmen in its original outing could hardly be blamed, since Bizet had been in ill health most of his life, a weakened and discouraged Bizet died of a heart attack in June of 1875, just weeks after the premiere of his masterpiece. Only 36 years old at the time, he never knew that his final work would emerge within decades as the most beloved and widely performed of all operas, and that its worldwide appeal would endure into the twenty-first century.
The sheer attractiveness of the music itself accounts for much of Carmen’s durability. Virtually every literate person in the developed world can recognize the familiar tunes from Carmen, which contains more memorable melodies per square foot than any other opera, with the possible exception of Porgy and Bess. And these melodies are not just patched together: the structure, though somewhat flexible (as represented by the wide variation in performance practice through the years), holds up to meticulous examination, while the orchestration and vocal writing are impeccable and efficient.
But the psychological and dramatic content of Carmen is equally responsible for its durability. With the exception of the necessary musical and emotional counterweight provided by the virginal and loyal Micäela, Carmen and her cohorts are unrelievedly selfish, conceited, and vulnerable—in other words, utterly human. In all of opera, only Mozart’s Don Giovanni approaches Carmen in the ability of one character to simultaneously attract and repel. Carmen is criminal in her disregard of her effect on others, and she delights in stealing and breaking hearts. However, she is, as she proves in the card trio, wise enough to know the price of her carefree life and willing to pay that price, ultimately, with bravery and bravado.
A closer examination of the setting and subject matter of Carmen reveals that, along with its obvious insights into character, the piece clearly evokes the historical circumstances of its creation. Paris—beautiful, seductive Paris—had twice suffered catastrophic betrayal at the hands of its own national government. Bizet and his librettists had witnessed these betrayals first hand: experiencing the proud and empty patriotism that preceded the Franco-Prussian War, the hunger and deprivation that resulted, and the summary and swift suppression of the commune. That Bizet and company could embody these experiences, in the aftermath of the city’s downfall, within the jaded and doomed character of Carmen is quite an accomplishment. However, it is equally understandable that the Parisian audience would have an uncomfortable reaction, initially, to this in-your-face representation of seduction, impulsiveness, and disaster, all of which they, too, (on a political and military level) had so recently endured.
Today, when the music begins and the curtain goes up, worldly concerns disappear as we join Carmen and her cohorts in adventures of the sort most of us never dare to dream of. Sitting in the audience 140 years after the premiere of Carmen, we find it easy to disapprove of that fiery gypsy girl, to puzzle over her motives in the seduction and rejection of Don José, and ponder why Don José is drawn so easily into her trap. We don’t always quite understand what makes them – or us – tick. But, like Don José, when Carmen starts to sing, we find ourselves hopelessly and fatally in love, all over again.
Wayne Lee Gay is a longtime classical music critic and commentator in North Texas and a past finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is a regular contributor to D Magazine’s FrontRow blog, writes fiction, and teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington and Tarrant County College. Mr. Gay contributes notes to the Dallas Opera program on a voluntary, unpaid basis.