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Who was Bizet’s Carmen?

Like so many operatic characters, Carmen stepped straight from the pages of fiction. In this case she first appeared in Prosper Mérimée’s novella, Carmen, published in Paris in 1845. In the story her spurned lover, Don José, recalls his first sight of her: "In Seville every man threw her some bold compliment on her figure; she answered them all with a sidelong glance, hand on hip, brazen as the real gypsy she was."

Mérimée’s bold heroine became Bizet’s primary protagonist. However, neither Bizet nor his librettists, Meilhac and Halévy, had ever visited Spain, and it is probable that he was influenced by his neighbor and friend, Celeste Venard, known as La Mogador. She sang professionally at a local café and included many Spanish songs in her repertoire.

These songs, together with Mérimée’s Carmen, gave the composer inspiration to write for his eponymous ‘heroine’ some of the greatest and most popular tunes in the operatic repertoire: firstly, her devil-may-care Habanera in Act l; followed by the fatal attraction of her seductive Seguilla in Act ll, where her castanets beat a fiery, staccato rhythm. Don José watches, mesmerized by Carmen’s erotic dance.

However, both composer and librettists agreed that new characters were required to flesh-out Mérimée’s plot that focused primarily on Carmen and her lover. Hence the Act I entrance of Micaela, a sweet and adoring messenger sent by Don Jose’s mother – she is the perfect foil for Carmen. 

The entrance of the suave and macho toreador Escamillo in Act ll adds fuel to the fire of Carmen’s passionate nature. This third and final figure in the tragic love triangle gives Carmen a perfect alternative when love for José wanes. The Act lll knife fight between José and Escamillo presages the tragic events to follow. Audiences at the Opéra-Comique in 1875 were shocked and horrified by Carmen’s death onstage in Act IV.

The premiere was not a success: ironically, it would be another thirty years, and in Italy not France, before the cult of operatic realism known as Verismo would appear. Carmen was the precursor. 

The opera is a tragedy for its protagonists as well as its composer. Worn out by disappointment and illness (a broken heart?) Bizet died before the first season was even over. He was thirty-six. Sadly, he did not live to see that his Carmen is often quoted as the most popular opera ever written and his heroine Carmen and her music still captivates audiences worldwide.

West Australian Opera presents CARMEN from 24 – 25 February at the WACA Ground. Book now.

Written by Annie Patrick