Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
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Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.
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.
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.
Bizet wrote over 1,200 pages of music, which he 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 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.
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...'
Historians have described Carmen as one of the first verismo operas. Verismo was an attempt by composers to present a realistic view of lower class society in everyday life. As a movement, verismo did not become popular until the 1890s, so in that respect, Bizet's opera was about 15 years before its time. This may be why the premiere was received poorly. By the third act, the audience was no longer applauding between scenes, and the mood in the house was described as 'glacial.' The conservative audience was appalled by the immorality of the characters and the fact that the heroine was the most immoral of all. Critics did not respond favorably either, complaining not only of the subject matter, but also describing the music as 'tiresome' and 'obscure.'
Bizet was disheartened that the audience did not understand or appreciate his work. Despite the poor reception, the opera continued to play through its run to a half-empty house. The run was cut short when Bizet died suddenly of heart disease, never to know how successful his opera would eventually become. Today, Carmen is one of the most frequently performed and most popular operas of all time, typically making the top ten list in both categories in any given season.
Carmen was written by composer Georges Bizet, based on a book by Prosper Mérimée. The opera premiered in Paris, in 1875. The title character is a gypsy who entices the soldier José away from his girlfriend, only to leave him for the dashing bullfighter Escamillo. At the end of the opera, José kills Carmen in a jealous rage. The opera was initially unsuccessful, perhaps due to the stark verismo, or realistic portrayal of lower class and scandalous characters. Among the opera's most popular musical numbers is Carmen's 'Habanera', which is based on a Cuban dance form and features a now-famous descending chromatic scale in the opening melody.
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Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons
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