While working on Bizet’s Carmen I found myself reflecting on the topic of “encounter with difference”—unlikely relationships that form between non-like-minded people—and pondering both the attraction and violence those experiences can generate. Both Carmen and Don José are members of marginalized minority populations in 19th-century Spain: she is a gypsy and he is a Basque.
Mérimée’s novella tells us José is a criminal whose dark past includes theft and murder. However when we first meet José, he is living a socially and morally accepted existence. He appears fixated on the familiar and the homogeneous (his controlling mother and his unpretentious childhood sweetheart Micaëla), yet his repressed shadows occasionally burst through. [Right: Don José as a young soldier. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
Enter the tantalizing Carmen, and José’s life is thrown into a vortex of unrepressed chaos. Compulsively attracted to her, José’s character development could be seen as his gradual decay into obsessive madness with Carmen, or as an essential rite of passage from a sexually undeveloped “boy” to a mature man capable of embracing the unfamiliar and, ultimately, full emotional truth and passionate love. Carmen’s
perspective is entirely different: Like a female Don Giovanni, she craves adventure and thrives on danger. Risk is her fetish and freedom is her drug of choice. Carmen is not only fearless in the face of death but also strangely attracted to it. I imagine that she sees through the cracks of Don José’s repressed facade and gazes into the darkest corners of his soul; what she sees entices and fascinates her. For a brief time, he becomes her obsession as she becomes his. Yet when the object of her obsession loses its initial charm, she moves on. The other has become familiar, and the appeal of the different has faded. By the last scene José is left with no valid options: no career, no family, no peer group, no self-worth, no Carmen. He is a broken man whose fatal attraction has mutated into alienation and violence. [Left: Jon José contemplates murder. Photo by Cory Weaver.]