So, we’ve blogged about the challenges to get “Carmen” produced for the first time and the alleged indecency of the plot. Let’s learn a bit more about the backstage history of this material.
WHO IT OFFENDED AND WHO IT ENTHRALLED
It was no secret that the storyline and music for “Carmen” seemed a little too progressive for some audience members, but there were others who thought it was fresh and sensational. Johannes Brahms was noted to have seen the production a staggering 20 times! We’re not sure if that says a certain something about Brahms’ focus on the eloquence of the material or the audacity of the storyline. Petyr Tchaikovsky went on record as saying “Carmen is a masterpiece. It’s one of those rare creations that expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch.” Let’s side with the composers and concur that it’s a masterwork.
WHERE CARMEN TAKES PLACE
When “Carmen” opens the stage, it is set at a cigarette factory in Seville. Did you know that there was a cigarette factory at this time that inspired the setting? The Royal Tobacco Factory in Seville opened for manufacturing operations circa 1758. Around the world, it was customary practice to have women produce the cigars. The Royal Tobacco Factory was the first to use an all-male workforce. However, as time went on, they saw that the quality produced by the men was not up to the same quality level as those produced by women in competitor factories. The factory converted to all female workforce in 1829. So by about the time setting of the “Carmen” story, women were firmly in charge of producing the cigars and snuff in the real world.
There’s a sizeable footnote to the Royal Tobacco Factory to share. In 1950, the tobacco factory moved its operations to another location in the city. The University of Seville saw the grandeur of the architecture and procured it to become the centerpiece of its campus. The renovation and restructuring of the building from a factory to a university occurred between 1954 and 1956. The repurposed building still stands today as the cornerstone to the university’s campus spread.
THE FIRST TO SING THE ROLE OF CARMEN
The folks at Opéra-Comique originally offered the role to noted soprano, Marie Roze, who had triumphs not only on the OC stage in other previous productions, but elsewhere in Europe. Offended by the fact that the role required her to die before the curtain came down, she walked away from the role. The part was then offered to another soprano, Célestine Galli-Marié, who had a bit of a reputation for being a rather demanding personality offstage. Eventually, the company was able to extend an agreeable deal in the contract and Galli-Marié would cement herself in history as the first singer to perform this notable role. She also became a staunch ally to the composer when he found himself backed against the wall with all sorts of demands by the company to tone down the role/story. She went to bat for him and used her influence to keep the material to the composer’s intentions knowing that she would get a juicier role as a result.
CARMEN PREMIERES TO THE WORLD
When “Carmen” debuted to the world on March 3, 1875, the material was a combination of music and spoken dialogue. Eventually, the dialogue was soon replaced with sung recitatives. However, today, companies can perform either version.
As for the reception by the audience and critics to this new opera, let’s just say it wasn’t what everyone had hoped. The reviews ranged from discouraging to down and out vicious. The company ending up papering the house with complimentary tickets during minimal sales periods and had to share the stage with the more popular material concurrently running, Verdi’s “Requiem.”
Tragically, Bizet died of heart disease during the original run of the production. He was only 36 years of age. Coincidentally, it also happened to be his wedding anniversary date. The production finished their run without much profit to the theater. Later that same year, the production (with the original cast) came back in November for a limited run of 12 performances. “Carmen” would not be performed again on the Parisian opera stage until 1883. It has never stopped being a staple of the opera houses since.
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…