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. [Read more…]