Did you know Bizet had never actually been to Spain when he wrote “Carmen”? Yet, his opera has become the touchstone interpretation of life in Seville. Speaking of life in Seville, let's hash out the plot of "Carmen."
The story goes like so: The year is about 1830. The plot deals with the unbridled love and jealousy of Don José, who gets very distracted from his soldier duties, not to mention his existing love, Micaëla, by the gypsy* Carmen, who works at the local tobacco factory makes cigars.
The male lead, Don José, had trained to be a priest. During his teenage years, he got into a rather heated tussle over a sports game and killed a man. To avoid prison, he fled his country and enlisted in the military. Don Jose’s job as corporal of the dragoons is to oversee and confirm that the factory women are not stealing tobacco. Don José spots Carmen on a break and she shameless flirts with him. Things get rather complicated when Carmen, though making flagrant moves on Don José as a tease, makes it emphatically clear that she is enamored with someone else, a bull-fighter named Escamillo. As the plot goes on, Don José is persuaded to join Carmen’s cronies the smugglers, but as with all things opera, gets afflicted with outrageous jealousy when he learns about Escamillo.
In the final act of the program, Escamillo enters the bullfighting arena with Carmen. Don José, who was waiting for Carmen to appear, and definitely not about to let her live happily ever after with Escamillo, stabs her to death just outside the bullring.
Only in opera can you witness this type of relentless display of love, affection, rage and fury in one evening! But when it’s put to wonderful music, then it’s lifted to art!
*The term "gypsy" is the term used to describe the free-spirit nomadic folks who spread over Europe, North and South Americas, typically of Romani descent. PLA recognizes it is considered a perjorative by some nowadays and is using the term only to be in sync with how opera described the character of Carmen from its point of story origination.
How a story about a sultry Sevillian woman working in a cigarette factory who just happened to be the object of unflinching affection for a military man became one of the most iconic, if not performed operas of the planet is a rather interesting journey. Let’s go down the path of how “Carmen” became one of the top 3 most performed titles in operatic literature.
It began with a short story, “Carmen” written by French author Proper Mérimée, one of the true pioneers of the novella form of writing. It was a little bit spicy for a story line, but nonetheless the composer, Georges Bizet, was looking for something that would be different than his previous opera efforts. He had a few performed operas to his name, but none of them really was a standout. Parisian audiences of the time were more interested in conventional, established fare instead of branching out into more modern pieces. All this time, Bizet was also providing piano lessons to supplement his income. He was the true starving artist.
A STORY CONSIDERED TOO INDECENT
Still and all, the folks at Paris Opéra-Comique reached out to Bizet and commissioned him to write new material for their 1874 season. The directors at POC were a little hesitant about the storyline attached to Bizet’s new opera. They thought it was just a little too racy for public consumption. One of the company directors, Adolphe de Leuven thought it was far too risqué a story for his family-friendly audience and quit the company in protest. Bizet and his libretto collaborators, Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, agreed to tone down the Rabelaisian nature of the story.
TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS
That wasn’t even the half of it. Lots of drama crept into the rehearsals. The chorus complained that they genuinely had to act and fight onstage. Given that during this period of history, the chorus was rather relegated to simply standing in position and singing, this was asking them to step outside their comfort zone. Down in the pit, the orchestra found parts of the score unplayable and let their displeasure be known. Lots of unhappy folks in the company rank and file, to be certain.
STAY TUNED FOR MORE DRAMA…
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