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Carmen the Opera: Synopsis, Music & Composer

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.

Synopsis

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.

Carmen entices the crowd
Image of Carmen singing to the soldiers.

The opening scene is set in the 1830s in Seville, Spain. Carmen attracts everyone's attentions, 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 and Composer

Photograph of Georges Bizet in 1875, months before he died
Photograph of Bizet

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.

The Music

Bizet wrote over 1,200 pages of music which he self-described as 'vivacious' and 'full of color.' The score uses Spanish and Latin elements to create memorable melodies that have found their way into popular culture in commercials, TV shows, and movies, including Disney's Up. One of the most famous musical numbers from this opera is Carmen's 'Habanera.' A habanera is a Cuban dance form with a characteristic and catchy rhythm. This rhythm dominates the bass line of the number. The melody opens with a descending chromatic scale, which is a sequence of notes that uses every possible tone in the octave as defined by the Western tuning system. It can start and end on any pitch, but all the pitches in between must be sequential and organized from lowest to highest or highest to lowest. Chromatic scales can be thought of as a sort of musical staircase, with each note being one of the steps.

The descending chromatic scale melody from Carmen is heard in this scene from the Disney movie Up as the character Carl descends the staircase in his chairlift
Image of cartoon man descending staircase on lift.

Carmen's 'Habanera' is her opening number, and it's designed to give the audience a snapshot of her character and personality. The lyrics revolve around the idea of free love, unrestrained by the confines of marriage: 'Love is a rebellious bird that none can tame. And one who calls it calls in vain...'

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