Sketches of Spain
An introduction to Bizet’s Carmen by Associate Professor Richard Chew
Director of the Arts Academy, Ballarat and Gippsland Centre for Art and Design, Federation University Australia. Richard’s compositions include operas, music theatre, choral and chamber music. Recent projects include conducting the London premiere of his oratorio Stari Most, in partnership with the human rights charity The Sentry, co-founded by John Prendergast and George Clooney.
Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most popular operas of all time. According to Operabase.com, the reference for opera performances worldwide, in the 2017/18 season, Carmen notched up an astonishing 705 performances across 165 productions. This, for an opera that was very poorly received at its premiere in 1875, leaving poor Bizet believing that the work had been a failure. He died of a heart attack on June 1st, the morning after the 32nd performance of his masterpiece. It’s one of the great tragedies of music that Georges Bizet did not live to see Carmen’s star rise, as it has continued to do until the present day.
So, why is Carmen so popular and what is the reason for its enduring success?
Well, the story is inherently dramatic, with a powerful central character and a scenario which is a gift to an opera composer. We have an exotic setting; Seville, with its medieval ramparts, market squares, factories and military barracks and, in contrast, the mountainous countryside outside the city walls, haven to smugglers, bandits and ne’re-do-wells. Carmen’s fate is laid out in the tarot cards she deals. She lives as a free spirit and dies in broad daylight, murdered by her jealous lover Don José, outside the stadium where a bullfight is taking place.
Carmen is a big canvas that teems with the hustle and bustle of humanity.
The threat of danger ever present, which creates an atmosphere on stage that is tense and unpredictable. Much of the story plays out on this knife-edge and, even in the more overtly romantic moments of the work, there is an intensity which threatens to boil over at any second. Whilst this makes for an exciting evening at the theatre, it does not ultimately account for the spectacular success of this opera and it’s enduring appeal.
I think Carmen stands the test of time because it prefigures the musical theatre of the 20th century, paving the way for shows such as West Side Story and Sweeney Todd. Indeed, Stephen Sondheim, who had a large hand in both these works and is not a fan of opera, makes an exception with Carmen:
‘Carmen is my idea of an ideal opera…I like that twilight zone between what we call musicals and what we call opera…The great thing about Carmen is the sense of song form, allied to the feeling of an endlessly flowing song texture, even though it’s full of numbers. How could Bizet master the form that way and also give you 13 of the best songs you ever heard in your life?’ (Stephen Sondheim, 1987, p.490.)
Of course, Carmen has played on Broadway, in the adaption by Oscar Hammerstein Carmen Jones (1943). Hammerstein transposes the action from Seville to North Carolina during World War II. Carmen Jones works in a parachute factory, Don José
becomes the dashing Corporal Joe and the matador Escamillo becomes the heavyweight boxer, Husky Miller. Although the musical version is not widely performed today, the film, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, which screened in 1954, is something of a classic and Bizet’s music works brilliantly in this context.
It’s not just the ‘songs’ in Carmen that point towards the musical theatre. In the original version, there is also spoken dialogue as opposed to sung dialogue or recitative, so you really get a sense that when the singing begins, it is because words alone are not enough. And the music stays with you, because the tunes Bizet gives to his principal characters are so clear and well defined. This is no doubt why the two most famous melodies from Carmen, the Habanera and the Toréador Song, have appeared so frequently in television commercials and advertising.
Bizet never travelled to Spain, so he had to rely on his imagination and printed anthologies of traditional Spanish folksongs as potential source material for his opera. There are no guitars in the orchestra (although they suggested by the pizzicato strings) and there is no attempt to imitate the highly ornamented improvisations or the raw passion of Flamenco singing, which would have been inappropriate, given the operatic conventions of the day. Bizet assimilates some of the traditional dance rhythms such as the seguidilla, polo and pasodoble and captures something of the melodic and harmonic inflections of Andalusian music and yet, for all its Spanish veneer, Carmen is essentially the product of a French Romantic sensibility. In other words, his audience was Parisian and he wrote for them. As Noel Coward quipped: ‘I think we must face the fact that Carmen by Bizet is no more Spanish than the Champs-Élysées.’
It may come as a surprise to learn that the most famous piece of music in Carmen, the ‘Habanera’, is in fact not by Bizet at all. This aria, (or song), was the most crucial one for the composer and his lyricists to get right. It appears in Act One and it’s the first time we as an audience get to meet Carmen and hear her sing.
Bizet originally composed an entirely different piece for the entrance of his heroine, L’amour est enfant de bohème (Love is the Child of a Gypsy). You can hear soprano Angela Gheorghiu’s recording of the first version of Carmen’s aria here. This is an aria that would not have sounded out of place in an operetta by Offenbach or Gounod’s Faust. It’s a fine piece of music, but there is nothing remotely Spanish about it and it doesn’t work in terms of establishing Carmen’s strength and independence.
After a number of rewrites, Bizet adapted a habanera by the Basque composer, Sebastián Iradier (1809 – 1865) called El Arreglito, set to reworked lyrics from the original aria. Bizet apparently had no idea he had stolen the music and subsequently added an acknowledgement of the source as a footnote in the score; “Imitated from a Spanish song. Property of the editors of Le Ménestrel”.
This is the Habanera we know and love, one of the most famous and instantly recognised pieces in all music. It completely captures the spirit of Carmen’s character and, fortunately for Bizet, the copyright laws in 1875 were more lenient than they are today.