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CARMEN Program Notes

CARMEN Program Notes for Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre's January 2014 Production

Carmen and Carmen: the Elusive and Uncategorizable
by James Martin, Professor of Music, Cornell College

We think we know Carmen because we know the music and plot of the work so well, and we do to the degree that the work allows.  Similarly, we think we know Carmen the character because we know her music so well.  But she is a synecdoche for the work: both are elusive and uncategorizable.


Carmen, an opera in four acts, premiered at the Opéra Comique in 1875, three months before its composer, Georges Bizet died.  Prosper Mérimée wrote the novella from which the opera comes, a novella that is strong enough to stand on its own as a compelling literary workThe librettists were Henri Meliac and Ludovic Halévy.  Its initial run was not successful, lasting only 36 performances.  It was often performed to half-empty houses, even when the management gave away large numbers of tickets.   After Bizet’s death it was revived with the original cast for another 12 performances.  Thus the original production lasted only 48 performances.  Carmen was not performed in Paris again until 1883.  While Carmen had its difficulties in Paris, it was an immediate success in Germany.  Beginning in the late 1870s Chancellor Bismarck reportedly saw it 27 different times.  Carmen premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1884.  Carmen was difficult to produce.  Bizet battled with one of the directors of the Opéra Comique who wanted Carmen to survive.  After this director resigned the remaining director made known his objections to the work as vulgar and brutal, and to the title character as immoral and unsympathetic. 

Mérimée’s Carmen provided Bizet with something more valuable than a good story; he provided a title character that could carry the day.  His Carmen is the most intelligent person in the story.  She initiates all the important action; she is the leader.  Everyone else is replaceable except for her.  And then there is her sexuality.  It is threatening; it creates feelings of inadequacy in the males, so much so that she must be destroyed.  There are a couple of important differences between the Mérimée and the Bizet.  Mérimée has no Micaëla.  Mérimée’s Don José is a bandit, murderer, and evil figure from the beginning; Bizet’s Don José is a “momma’s boy” who is led into degradation and murder by forces beyond his control and understanding. 

In his essay The Case of Wagner of 1888 Friedrich Nietzsche famously championed Bizet and Carmen against Wagner wherein he called Wagner his great sickness, which he said he successfully treated by turning to Bizet’s Carmen.  Here Nietzsche wrote what has become the most famous commentary we have on Carmen.  The quotation below has what this author believes to be his most salient comments on Carmen from this essay. 

Yesterday I heard—would you believe it?—Bizet’s masterpiece for the twentieth time. . . . How such a work makes one perfect!  One becomes a “masterpiece” oneself. 

    Really, every time I heard Carmen I seemed to myself more of a philosopher, a better philosopher, than I generally consider myself . . . .

    May I say that the tone of Bizet’s orchestra is almost the only one I can still endure?  That other orchestral tone which is now the fashion, Wagner’s brutal, artificial, and “innocent” at the same time . . . . I break out into a disagreeable sweat.  My good weather is gone. 

    This [Carmen’s] music seems perfect to me.  It approaches lightly, supplely, and politely.  It is pleasant, it does not sweat.  “What is good is light; whatever is divine moves on tender feet”: first principle of my aesthetics.  This music is evil, subtly fatalistic” at the same time it remains popular—its subtlety belongs to a race, not to an individual.  It is rich.  It is precise.  It builds, organizes, finishes: thus it constitutes the opposite of the polyp in music, the “infinite melody.” . . .

    This work [Carmen], too, redeems; Wagner is not the only “redeemer.”  With this work one takes leave of the damp north, of all the steam of the Wagnerian ideal.  Even the plot spells redemption of that. . . . In every respect the climate is changed.  Another sensuality, another sensibility speaks here, another cheerfulness.  This music is cheerful, but not in a French or German way.  Its cheerfulness is African; fate hangs over it; its happiness is brief, sudden, without pardon.  I envy Bizet for having had the courage for this sensibility which had hitherto had no language in the cultivated music of Europe—for this more southern, brown, burnt sensibility. . . .

    Finally, love—love translated into nature.  Not the love of a “higher virgin”!  No Senta-sentimentality!  But love as fatum, as fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel—and precisely in this a piece of nature. . . . I know of no case where the tragic joke that constitutes the essence of love is expressed so strictly, translated with equal terror into a formula, as in Don José’s last cry which concludes the work: “Yes, I have killed her, I—my adored Carmen!”  Such a conception of love (the only one worthy of a philosopher) is rare: it raises a work of art above thousands. 

This is obviously not the place to analyze the extraordinarily complex relationship between Nietzsche and Wagner that informs so much of Nietzsche’s Carmen commentary.  That’s for another time and place. 

Carmen the opera as Elusive and Uncategorizable

Carmen is nationalistically both French and Spanish.  It is French in the sense that its composer, the author of its original story (Prosper Mérimée), and its two librettists (Henri Meliac and Ludovic Halévy) were all French.  Bizet never visited Spain and yet it is generally considered to be “the Spanish opera,” primarily due to the quantity and quality of its Spanish dance music, used not only in dance numbers but in vocal solos and ensembles numbers as well.  When Bizet decided to compose a “Spanish opera” he used the rather limited collection of Spanish songs at the Library of the Conservatoire.  Tracking down the authenticity of one of the most famous numbers of the work, Carmen’s “Habanera,” is tricky.  First, there is a story that Bizet heard the melody sung by a woman in Paris and he believed it to be a Spanish song and thus used it in Carmen.  After Carmen’s premiere the composer of the song was identified as Sebastián Yradier, and his publisher, Heugel of Paris, successfully obtained acknowledgement for his publishing house and composer.  We do not actually know how Bizet came to know and use the Habanera, but most of the evidence suggests that Yradier was the source, either through one of the published collections of Yradier’s songs, or through some other means.  And Bizet copied the melody virtually note for note, a departure from his usual practice with sources.  Finally, although Carmen is indeed known as the quintessential “Spanish opera,” most of the score is pure French and very much in the previously established style of Bizet.  Excellent examples of this are Don José’s aria “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” and all of the music of Micaela.  Even the famous “Toreador Song,” which so many people think of as Spanish, assumedly because of its bull-fighting association and its belonging to Carmen, has nothing whatsoever about it that can be called Spanish. 

Carmen has many differences from its contemporary operas.  Approximately half of it is set in seamy, ugly places: smuggler’s dens, cigar factories, prisons, etc.  We have no traditional heroes or heroines, no princes or princesses, no military commanders, no noble sacrifices, no lofty ideals represented.  In an opera so concerned with love, it is peculiar that we have no deeply felt love duet.  The closest thing we have to this is a short bit between Escamillo and Carmen in Act IV, which can hardly be called true or sincere love, since both characters are only interested in temporary sexual play.  Although there is a sensitive duet between Don José and Micaëla, it is about José’s mother, not about them. 

One of Bizet’s difficulties was timing and location.  Wagnerism--of which the French variety was the strongest of any of the national Wagnerisms, including German--had begun in Paris, primarily as a result of Charles Baudelaire’s famous 1861 essay, "Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris,” in which he championed Wagner’s music and apologized for the difficult reception Wagner’s Tannhäuser had received in Paris.  The cult of Wagnerism that swept through France was overwhelming, so much so that it polarized the art world, especially in Paris.  Conservative critics clung to older “French” traditions and saw the Wagnerization of French culture as destructive.  They complained about Wagnerism in Carmen, especially with respect to what they viewed as the overwhelming of the voice by the power of the orchestra.  Some were none too happy to hear such musical items as the Fate motive, which plays such an important role in Carmen, pejoratively describing it as a Wagnerian leitmotif, in spite of the fact that it neither functions as Wagner leitmotivs do, nor requires any particular mention of Wagner.  Such musical “themes of identity” had a long history that preceded Wagner without any reliance upon him.  Other critics wished for a more Wagnerian work, criticizing the work for its lack of Wagnerian qualities.  Poor Bizet was stuck in the middle of a culture war that he could not win.* 

Genre is difficult to assign.  Because it contains spoken dialogue it had to be performed at the “Opéra Comique,” this is spite of its tragic nature.  Spoken dialogue equaled comic opera.  Critics reported that the Opéra Comique audience was “shocked by the dramatic realism of the action” and by the immorality of most of the characters.  Many were outraged that the heroine was an amoral seductress rather than a woman of virtue; Carmen was described by one critic as "the very incarnation of vice."  Others compared the work unfavorably with the traditional Opéra Comique repertoire of Auber and Boieldieu.  The genre was being perverted: motivation of the action is often slimy; the female lead and title character dies; the male lead is degraded and then murders; love is generally treated cynically.  Traditional notions of love are replaced with sensuality and lust.

 Shortly before his death, Bizet agreed to have his friend Ernest Guiraud compose recitatives to replace the original spoken dialogue, thus changing the category of the work from comic opera to grand opera.  (Other changes included Guiraud’s addition of reorchestrated music from Bizet’s “L’Arlésienne Suite” for a ballet in Act II.)  Bizet did not live long enough to witness the premiere of this new version, which occurred at the Vienna Court Opera.  Further confusing its nature, the Court Opera director decided to combine both the original spoken dialogue with Guiraud’s newly composed recitatives, creating a hodgepodge version that was the most frequently performed version for nearly a century.  Nonetheless, this 1875 Vienna production was a great success with audiences and drew high praise from Wagner and Brahms. 

There are even more problems with identifying what Carmen exactly is.  Bizet continually changed the music in rehearsals: sometimes out of theatrical concerns, sometimes to satisfy the demands of singers, and sometimes to make the orchestral score less challenging.  The March 1875 vocal score is quite different from the one Bizet sold to his publisher just two months earlier, and the conducting score is yet a third version of the work.  Other changes include: libretto rewriting, restructuring of events, and insertion of Bizet’s own verses in place of the libretists’ in an effort to better represent the Mérimée novella.  There is no universally recognized score for the work in spite of various efforts by scholars.  The more digging we do, the more variations in the work we come to find.  Perhaps it is best to surrender to the work’s elusiveness and even embrace it: embracing the elusiveness of Carmen, surely an apt metaphor for how we should approach the title character as well.

Carmen the character as Elusive and Uncategorizable

Adjectives assigned to Carmen include earthy, intense, fatalistic, fun-loving, sensuous, clever, courageous, amorous, amoral, cruel, fickle, self-willed, outrageous, libidinous, alluring, exciting, dynamic, fascinating, free—on and on it goes.  One ends up surrendering to her wiles and accepting that she will forever be mysterious and elusive.  It is difficult to measure her: notions of good and evil or any principles at all are inappropriate and irrelevant.  As Maria Callas described her in an interview, “Carmen’s only morality is never to pretend what she does not really feel.  She’s not calculating but she is without pity.” 

We do not even have a definitive voice category for the title role of Carmen.  It is regularly sung by both operatic sopranos and mezzo sopranos.  And what kind of title character is Carmen?  She tells us from the very beginning in her opening Habanera that she is an elusive bird, that she will love whom and how she pleases.  We come to see that she has a history of moving from lover to lover, all on her terms.  As she sings in her opening Habanera, “If you don’t love me, I love you; If I love you, look out for yourself!”  She has an extraordinary zest for life: she is interested in the chase, in the conquest.  Yes, there have been many interesting and fruitful comparisons between Carmen and Don Giovanni.  For example Arnold Schoenberg called her “a female Don Giovanni, She would rather die than be false to herself.”

Another part of Carmen’s elusiveness is her nationality.  She is a gypsy.  She belongs to no nation nor is she clearly defined racially.  As a female factory worker she also is not easily categorized for a 19th century woman.  She lives outside the constrictions of any legal system.  She confronts us with this in her opening Habanera with the lyrics “Love is a gypsy child, he has never heard of law.”  The notion of traditional family and marriage do not apply to her.  She has unrestricted mobility, crossing geographical boundaries as if they do not exist.  In Mérimée’s novella we find an emphasis upon her linguistic virtuosity.  She shifts among whichever languages serve her interests.  Bizet replaces this linguistic virtuosity with musical virtuosity. 

One of the critical ways in which Carmen’s elusiveness is presented is through Don José’s inability to see her realistically.  He dreams of redeeming her, saving her from her gypsy life of crime.  But he can neither capture her nor redeem her, so he resorts to violence to end his suffering over this.  And as if Carmen’s own presentation were not enough to drive home the message, we have Micaëla as the sexless, virginal female for comparison.  Carmen’s dangerous personae—the racial “other,” lawless criminal, femme fatale—all combine to present a dangerous woman who cannot be controlled.

She is also a heroine in many ways.  How can we not admire her bravery, her ability to stick to her principles in the face of death, her resourcefulness, her intelligence?  She is way ahead of her time with respect to her sense that she and she alone governs her heart and her body.  No male will control her sexuality.  She is a quasi-prototype for the feminist female.  At the same time she is more elusive that we might admit.  Her dependence upon “black magic,” as represented by her faith in the tarot cards, as well as her willingness to resign herself to fate, disturb this feminist heroine construction of her.  When confronted with these supernatural forces, forces that are actually of her own psychological making, she surrenders her resourcefulness, her intelligence, her strength against domination.  Are we not a bit frustrated when, at the end of the opera, Carmen refuses to fight for her life against Don José?  In the face of what she views as the power of fate, her strength disappears.  Not only are we disturbed by Don José’s action, we are also disturbed by hers, or the lack thereof. 


Carmen has plenty of “substance” to ponder; it is a work that rewards serious thought over time.  And the music is superb, some of the very best opera has to offer.  One of Carmen’s notable characteristics is that there is so much singing within the plot itself: parades, military fanfares, outdoor choruses, dances, and songs.  The character Carmen loves to sing and dance, both simply to express herself and to seduce.  Additionally, part of the magic of Carmen that allows us to repeatedly enjoy a work that we already know so well, a work that is such a staple of the operatic repertoire, is the elusiveness and “uncategorizableness” of both the work and its title character.  Carmen/Carmen continues to fascinate and seduce us.


*A few delicious diatribes against Bizet and Carmen from the French anti-Wagnerians.

M. Bizet is a young musician of great and incontestable worth who writes detestable music, one of this group of French composers who have abdicated their individuality to place themselves in the harness of Wagner.  The Flying Dutchman drags them into the path of endless melody on that Dead Sea of music without key, without rhythm, without stature, elusive and horribly enervating.  M. Bizet and his master will not succeed in changing human nature. . . .

[Oscar Comettant, Le Siècle, Paris, May 27, 1872]

The heart of M. Bizet, made callous by the school of dissonance and experimentation, needs to recapture its virginity.  Carmen is neither scenic nor dramatic.  One cannot express musically the savagery and the caprices of Mlle. Carmen with orchestral details.  Nourished by the succulent harmonies of the experimenters of the music of the future, Bizet opened his soul to this doctrine that kills the heart.

[Oscar Comettant, Le Siècle, Paris, March 1875]

M. Bizet belongs to that new sect whose doctrine is to vaporize a musical idea instead of compressing it within definite contours.  For this school, of which M. Wagner is the oracle, themes are out of fashion, melody is obsolete; the voices, strangled and dominated by the orchestra, are but its enfeebled echo.  Such a system must inevitably result in the production of ill-organized works.  The orchestration of Carmen abounds in learned combinations, in unusual and strange sonorities.  But the exaggerated competition by the instruments against the voices is one of the errors of the new school.

[Paul de Saint-Victor, Moniteur Universel, Paris, March 1875]

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