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Carmen in a nutshell

Everything you need to know about Bizet’s Carmen in one place – right here!

What is the story?

Our Carmen is set in a remote frontier town, where soldiers spend their time drinking at Lillas Pastia’s nightclub. All are obsessed with Carmen, the star performer, except for repressed corporal Don José. He has received a letter from his mother via Micaëla, a woman from his hometown, urging that he return home and marry Micaëla. However, when a brawl breaks out at the club, José is ordered to guard Carmen. She gives him a private dance and he is captivated…

Carmen asks José to prove his love by running away with her – he refuses, but when jealousy over Carmen causes him to attack a senior officer, José is left with no choice but to desert.

The pair become involved in smuggling, but by now, Carmen has grown tired of his possessiveness and turned instead to the swaggering Escamillo. But she has seen what’s on the cards, and her and José’s fates are sealed…

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Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo with members of the Chorus of Opera North © Tristram Kenton

Who are the characters?

Carmen (CAR-men) – burlesque dancer (mezzo-soprano)
Don José (DON zho-ZAY) – soldier (tenor)
Escamillo (ess-kah-MEE-yo) – rodeo rider (baritone)
Micaëla (mee-kah-AY-lah) – woman from José’s hometown (soprano)

Frasquita and Mercedes (frah-SKEE-tah / mayr-SAY-dess) – burlesque dancers (soprano/mezzo-soprano)
Lillas Pastia (LEE-yahs PAH-styah) – nightclub owner (spoken)
Morales (moh-RAH-les) – soldier (baritone)
Zuniga (zoo-NEE-gah) – José’s senior officer (bass)
Remendado and Dancairo (reh-men-DAH-doh / dan-CAI-roh) – smugglers (tenor/bass)

The chorus also play a big role on stage as nightclub performers, soldiers and smugglers.

What is this production like?

This new production by director Edward Dick (of our Tosca, 2018) turns the idea of Carmen – an opera by a man, based on a book by a man, about the downfall of a man – on its head, to look at the story from the point of view of a woman struggling to survive in a toxic, male-dominated environment.

Set in a burlesque club run by Lillas Pastia (played by performance artist Nando Messias), Carmen is the star attraction – but her ‘femme fatale’ image is merely a performance to please the men who frequent the bar. While she and the other dancers (played by the ladies of the Chorus) perform sexy cigarette and gypsy-inspired numbers, in their dressing room hide the gritty realities of life – including the children they work to support.

Carmen longs to show Don José the real ‘her’, but is he smitten with Carmen the woman, or just ‘Carmencita’ the act? And can there be an escape from this life for her – with him, with the glamorous Escamillo (here a rodeo star), or is she fated to die?

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Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo and Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen with members of the Chorus of Opera North and Carmen company © Tristram Kenton

What is the music like?

Carmen features some of the most famous music in all opera. Among the hit tunes are:

– The Habanera or ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ (Love Is a Rebellious Bird), Carmen’s sultry entrance aria. The habanera was a dance brought back to Spain from Cuba, characterised by a repeated dotted rhythm. Bizet wanted the score to have an authentic Spanish flavour. However, his habanera turned out to be based not on a genuine folk melody as he had believed, but a much more recent cabaret song!

– The Seguidilla or ‘Près des remparts de Séville’, in which Carmen sings about a night of passion with an unknown lover, seducing Don José. This number uses flamenco rhythms.

Toreador Song or ‘Votre toast’, a real crowd pleaser as Escamillo describes fame and victory in the ring, and the Chorus join in.

…not to mention the whirling Chanson Bohème, Don José’s heart-wrenching Flower Song (a favourite tenor aria) and the high-energy Prélude, which brings some of these themes together!

But as well as cracking sing-along melodies, Carmen is also known for vividly painting the emotions of the characters in the music. Listen out for the recurring fate motif with its ominous bass drum thumps, foreshadowing Carmen’s death…

Who was the composer?

Carmen was written by French composer Georges Bizet (1838–1875). He didn’t enjoy real public success until the early 1870s, when he was commissioned to write a new opera for the prestigious Opéra-Comique in Paris, working with top librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. He was thrilled, and wrote of “the absolute certainty of having found my path”.

Tragically, Bizet suffered a heart attack mid-way through Carmen’s opening run of performances and died, at the age of just 36. He would never know how Carmen – still today by far his best known work – would take the world by storm…

Georges Bizet, 1875 © Étienne Carjat

A little history…

The opera is based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen, which was inspired by scandalous tales about the Roma people that the author heard while traveling in Spain. It was a fairly radical choice for a subject, and was divisive from the off – joint director of the Opéra-Comique Adolphe de Leuven thought it was far too risqué a story for his family-friendly theatre, and ended up resigning.

Controversy continued into rehearsals – the chorus complained that they had to actually act (and fight!) onstage rather than just standing in line, and the orchestra found some parts of the score unplayable.

Carmen finally premiered in March 1875, but did not go down well. The audience was shocked by its blatant sexuality, on-stage murder, portrayal of crime, and above all its unconventional heroine, who was most definitely not a woman of virtue (pretty much everything, then)!

The opera was, however, much better received in Vienna later that year, and from there its popularity spread like wildfire, premiering in Brussels, London, Barcelona, New York, St Petersburg and more over the next three years. Appetite for this eternally provocative piece has never dimmed. Today, nearly 150 years later, Carmen is THE most frequently performed opera worldwide.

Poster for the premiere of Carmen, 1875 and Célestine Galli-Marié, the original Carmen © Paul Nadar

Did you know?

– Bizet had never actually been to Spain when he wrote Carmen! And yet his opera has become the definitive idea of Seville.

– While it outraged the public, many composers at the time appreciated Carmen for its genius – Brahms apparently saw the opera twenty times and said he would have “gone to the ends of the earth to embrace Bizet”, while Tchaikovsky wrote that “Carmen is a masterpiece… one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch.”

– The original casting of the title role was a bit of a headache – the singer first approached turned down it down after learning she would have to die on stage! In the end, the role was sung by Célestine Galli-Marié, who was an invaluable ally to Bizet during the stormy rehearsal process.

– The music of Carmen has featured in countless films, cartoons and adverts over the years, from Tom and Jerry (1962) to Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).

Carmen is sung in French with English titles, and lasts approximately 3 hours (including one interval). Join in on social media with #ONCarmen.


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