Carmen the Opera: Synopsis, Music & Composer

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  • 0:04 Synopsis
  • 1:56 The Opera & Composer
  • 2:48 The Music
  • 3:56 Reception
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

The captivating music from the opera ''Carmen'' has delighted and inspired audiences for decades. This lesson explores the main plot points of this opera and explains why it wasn't always a crowd favorite.


Carmen is an opera by Georges Bizet based on an 1845 novella by French dramatist Prosper Mérimée. The title character, a wild Spanish gypsy, is unscrupulous in matters of the law and of the heart.

The opening scene is set in the 1830s in Seville, Spain. Carmen attracts everyone's attention, but soldier Don José pretends not to notice her. The flirtatious Carmen throws him a flower. He intends to throw it away, but hides it when his girlfriend, Micaëla, arrives. A knife fight breaks out between Carmen and another woman, and José is ordered to arrest Carmen. Thinking fast, Carmen seduces José and escapes, which results in José's arrest for breach of duty.

A month later, Carmen and her friends are entertaining soldiers in a tavern. A famous bullfighter, Escamillo, arrives. He flirts with Carmen, who rebuffs him because she is waiting for José to be released from jail. When José arrives, Carmen rewards him with an erotic dance. As he prepares to return to the barracks for the night, she taunts him, saying that if he really loved her, he would run off with her. José protests and shows her that he has saved the flower she gave him as a sign of true love. At that moment, Jose's lieutenant returns to arrest Carmen. The men fight and are separated by Carmen's gang of smugglers. Because José has attacked a superior officer, he has no choice but to run away with Carmen and the smugglers to the mountains.

In the mountains, Carmen bores of José and advises him to go home to his mother. Escamillo arrives and invites everyone to his next bullfight before he leaves. The closing act depicts Escamillo's bullfight. Carmen is on Escamillo's arm, but she runs into José outside the arena. José begs Carmen to come away with him, but she refuses, saying that she was born free and will die free. In a jealous rage, José stabs her to death while the crowd inside the arena cheers Escamillo to victory.

The Opera & Composer

Carmen was written by French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875). Bizet had written several operas but had not had much success, mostly due to the fact that Parisian audiences preferred older, established works instead of modern ones. Despite this, the Paris Opéra-Comique commissioned this opera from him for the 1874 season. Rehearsals were scheduled to begin in October of 1873, but the opera directors had some reservations about the subject matter, believing it to be too risqué for the public stage. Bizet toned the opera down a bit, and rehearsals began a year late, in October of 1874. During practice, Bizet found that he had to make a few changes to the music to appease the musicians, opera directors, and singers. Because of all the alterations, opening night was pushed back until March 3, 1875.

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