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Opéra Comique and Carmen

Josh Borths – January 29, 2016

Carmen was considered a complete disaster when it premiered in 1875 at Paris’ popular theatre, the Opéra Comique. Audiences were shocked at what composer Bizet and librettists Meilhac and Halévy put on the stage. They even went so far as to petition the theater to not let anyone under the age of 18 into the hall. In their eyes, Carmen was an affront to society. 

Today, Carmen is one of the most performed operas in the world—second only to Verdi’s La traviata. Carmen’s characters and melodies perennially capture audiences’ imaginations. When people think of “opera,” they conjure images of sultry gypsies and bull fights. These images rank with Viking helmets and unfortunate Bohemians. 

How does this happen? How can an opera transform so completely in the eyes of the public without the composer changing a note? 

Carmen: From Scorned to Beloved

The answer to that question is found in the audience expectations of the day and the style of opéra comique. Opéra comique, a genre of French opera, was very popular in the nineteenth century. These works, which had to include dialogue, tended to be lighthearted and populist. The Daughter of the Regiment, presented last season by Arizona Opera, is a poster-child for the style, and the effervescent and happy romp was what audiences expected when they walked into the theater. Upbeat frivolity is not what they received when they saw Carmen for the first time. 

Carmen—the opera—is based on a novella of the same name by French short story master, Prosper Mérimée. In the novella, Mérimée went out of his way to create an authentic story that grapples with the violence, sensuousness and impulsiveness that lurk under the surface of society. This literary realism, championed by Mérimée, was called verismo and became an obsession of the writers and composers who resented the affectation of the Romantic era. 

Emotional Roller Coaster

Bizet and his collaborators took the spirit of verismo and brilliantly combined it with the conventions of opéra comique. This was a shock. Carmen is violently murdered by Don José in full view of the audience. Carmen’s independence and sexual freedom leaves nothing to the imagination. There is no glossy surface to hide behind. Just like the original audiences of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, who didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, audiences didn’t know how to handle the emotional roller coaster present in Bizet’s musical kaleidoscope. 

While Bizet didn’t live to see the success of Carmen (a student later added the recitatives that are often performed), the piece became hailed as a masterpiece only once it was taken out of the context of light opera. Now, we take Carmen for granted. 

This production restores Carmen to the world of opéra comique—complete with dialogue as Bizet intended. After all, it is this conflict between the verismo and opéra comique that makes this opera fresh and fascinating to this day. Carmen is a shocking tragedy disguised as something more lighthearted—not unlike the enigmatic gypsy herself.

Written by Joshua Borths,
Assistant Director & Director of Education