The Story Behind The Carmen Opera

Want to know the real story behind Bizet's Carmen opera? Read this article to find out the origin of this opera's plot.

Bizet's Carmen is reputed to be the most famous opera in the world. But, contrary to popular opinion, Bizet and his librettists had nothing to do with the original story behind the scenes. Carmen is an older tale, one that was first published in the form of a novella in the year 1845.

Merimee heard the story while travelling through Spain. It was recounted to him by a countess. Her telling of the story involved a Spanish gypsy girl and a jealous lover that kills her after finding out about her betrayal. The tale that Merimee set on paper is different than that which he heard. The center of his story is the gypsy girl Carmen, who is a stunning, manipulative woman that leads men astray by her beauty and dancing. Her lover, Jose, is a possessive man at once besotted with her. He leaves his regiment and is accused of a crime that he does not commit. Carmen's reluctance to commit to him after his sacrifice leads him to kill her in a tragic finale. In the novella, the tale itself is told to the narrator while Jose waits to be executed for his crime.

Merimee was intensely proud of his work. A French writer, he was well-known for his adventures, which he recounted frequently in his later days. His novella did not do well, as was expected, because of the nature of its story. Paris was experiencing a moral leadership at the time, and a story of this sort was silently banned from bookstores and papers.

Bizet chose Carmen for his opera in the year 1874. The libretto was then changed by the librettists of the opera, Halevy and Meilhac. These were popular librettists, and it was rumored that they did not approve of Bizet's choice at the time. Bizet himself resisted some of the changes they were making because he felt they made the libretto less powerful. In his opinion, the opera was to startle and impress. In the original text, there is no male figure that Carmen is distinctly attracted to. In the libretto, however, this figure takes the form of Escamillo, a spanish rogue. A blond woman named Michaela was added to balance Jose's character, and offer a foil against which Carmen is cast. Choruses and dancers are added, in addition to army men and officers. In the opera, Camren is the same strong-willed, destructive siren that she is in the book. There is a strength about her, however, and a fierce passion that wins an audience to her side. She is unflinching in the face of death, and in fact, seems to expect it.

It is interesting to note that Carmen was met with fierce disapproval. Rehearsals were sporadic, and several cast members quit before the performance. The music, slightly Spanish, was resisted. Critics described it as "immoral" and "low." While Bizet was awarded for the opera several times, he declared himself that it was a flop. Today, however, it has been played in almost every opera house in the world. Carmen's strength is that it does not impart a moral message, rather, it lets the characters move within their own spheres. As a consequence, Carmen's passion mingles with Don Jose's reckless behavior, Michaela's religious piety, and Escamillo's male virility to create a breathtaking tale.

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