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.