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The Most Famous Opera of All Time

Stuart Maunder AM

Carmen is possibly the most famous opera of all time probably because it contains more hits per square metre than any other opera.

Geoges Bizet’s masterpiece of the gypsy seductress who lives by her own rules, no matter what the cost, has had an impact far beyond the opera house. Its melodies have proliferated popular culture from Gilligan’s Island to the Muppets.

Carmen, famously was a scandal at its premiere and was roundly denounced in the press for its flagrant immorality. The power of the music and the drama, however, created an equally vocal faction in favour of the work. And everywhere away from Paris it was a success:  Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and even two unlikely Germans: Otto von Bismark, the man who united the German states, and the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche all extolled the brilliance of the work.  Nietzsche, indeed praised the opera, declaring ‘the robustness of the score is nothing less than a cure-all for the world’s spiritual ills’.

Brahms went to see the opera over twenty times; the great Wagner declared, ‘At last. Someone with new ideas’; Tchaikovsky was in awe at the premiere and later wrote;

‘I am convinced that ten years hence Carmen will be the most popular opera in the world’.

The score of Carmen contains so many instantly recognizable melodies that it can be easy to overlook how well constructed it is. The orchestra brings to life a wide palette of sound, and Bizet is now renowned as a master orchestrator. The major solo arias are not only arresting melodies but all follow the dramatic purpose:  the tenor’s wrenching Flower Song in Act II, and Micaëla’s soaring Act III aria and most notably the baritone’s famous Toréador Song.

Carmen herself has no actual aria but rather several solos in the form of songs—that is, moments in which the character is actually supposed to be singing within the context of the drama. Every time she sings a major solo, it’s a performance within the performance. She is sort of the Sally Bowles of the opera.

This is music theatre charged with an unprecedented realism that makes the two principal figures, Carmen and Don José, as vivid as flesh and blood, destroyed by their appetites and their weaknesses.

But even though it’s full of colorful characters, Carmen is really about just two people.  Carmen and José. Carmen, as even she herself knows, is doomed from the start, she does not change from beginning to end. She is entirely free.

And we see Carmen totally from Don Jose’s perspective, so in a strange way we are all turned into Carmen’s lovers. It is his disintegration that forms the core of the opera.

José, in contrast to Carmen, undergoes a complete, doomed metamorphosis. He changes from a naive country boy, to a besotted lover, and finally into a homicidal demon who, driven mad by unrequited love, murders the object of his fierce love.