Did You Know? The History of Carmen

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Experience Central City Opera with an inside look at the festival’s history, performances, and people.

Our opening show of the 2017 season, Georges Bizet’s Carmen, is one of the most beloved operas of all time. It is not only a staple of opera companies around the world and the Metropolitan Opera’s third most performed work, but it also features musical motifs that you’ve probably heard in movies, television shows, commercials, radio programs, and symphony halls. Carmen is a musical masterpiece, a thrilling tale of seduction and betrayal, and a cultural cornerstone of modern theatre and opera.

Georges Bizet

Georges Bizet

Carmen did not always enjoy such success. When it premiered on March 3, 1875 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, it was met with outrage. Carmen, the cigarette-smoking gypsy seductress, was a radical character for the Opéra-Comique, a theater that was known at the time for its family-friendly productions. The opera was unappealing to many even before the premiere; almost every female performer that was offered the title role turned it down, and Bizet was asked repeatedly to rewrite the work and make it less risqué.

A poster for Carmen's opening run

A poster for “Carmen”‘s opening run

Bizet refused to make changes to the racy storyline, and Carmen opened with its intended plot, based on Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novel of the same name. The Paris critics were not kind in their reviews. Victorin Jonçières wrote in the newspaper La Liberté that “Certain types of character that are intriguing in a book are less appealing on the stage, where they take on a realistic nature that shocks even less timorous spirits. The two heroes of Mérimée’s novella, a fallen woman [Carmen] and a deserter [Don José], cannot be transported to the theater with impunity.” Oscar Comettant, a critic for the French newspaper Le Siécle, said of the music, “M. Bizet, who has nothing left to learn of what those who have taught him, still has lamentably a great deal left to learn from those who have not taught him. His heart, rather cloyed by the school of dissonance, and all his heavy learning, needs to rediscover for itself a musical virginity.” In Le Patrie, Achille de Lauzières lamented the moral qualities of Carmen and characters like her in the theatre, “The stage [in general] is given over more and more to women of dubious morals. It is from this class that people like to recruit the heroines of our dramas, our comedies, and now even our comic operas.”

The Opéra-Comique in Paris, where Carmen premiered in 1875

The Opéra-Comique in Paris, where “Carmen” premiered in 1875

By the fourth or fifth performance of Carmen‘s run, there was talk of the opera being withdrawn, and the Opéra-Comique began to give tickets away to boost their audience sizes. Bizet was resigned to the apparent failure of his work, calling it a “definite and hopeless flop”. Carmen was able to survive its full run of 37 performances, but on June 3, 1875, the night of Carmen‘s 31st performance, Bizet died of a heart attack, convinced that he and his work had proved to be disappointments.

The real tragedy of Carmen is that Bizet never had the chance to see the true achievement that was his final work. When it reopened just months later on October 23, 1875 at the Imperial Opera in Vienna, Carmen was wildly successful. Bizet’s score earned the admiration of acclaimed composers such as Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, and Pytor Tchikovsky, and the work ended up being lauded for its gritty realism and flawed characters. This summer will mark the seventh run of Carmen at Central City Opera, proof of its ability to captivate audiences with its beautiful music, compelling characters, and exciting story.

Carmen opens at Central City Opera on Saturday, July 8 and runs through Sunday, August 6. For tickets and more information, please visit http://centralcityopera.org/event/carmen.

Central City Opera’s CARMEN (2017). Pictured: Emily Pulley (Carmen) and Adriano Graziani (Don José) with Ensemble. Photography by Amanda Tipton.

Central City Opera’s “CARMEN” (2017). Pictured: Emily Pulley (Carmen) and Adriano Graziani (Don José) with Ensemble. Photography by Amanda Tipton.





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