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.
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