Up to that time no work given at the Opéra-Comique had ended with a violent death on stage. It was a “family” theater, and although Paris in the 1870s was no haven of morality, the reaction of press and public alike to the presence on the Opéra-Comique stage of what were regarded as thieves, murderers, and prostitutes, was one of shocked disapproval. Only later, and after many revisions—only a few of which originated with the dying composer—did Carmen take its place in the international repertoire.
It was in fact not in Paris but in Vienna, and then in a significantly different version, that Carmen triumphed. For the Vienna production, which took place later in the same year—1875—as the original Paris premiere, Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud revised the whole work, writing fully composed orchestral recitatives in place of the original spoken dialogue, recomposing several sections, and making a number of substantial new cuts. It was in this form, acceptable now to the theaters where grand opera (which acknowledged no spoken dialogue) was performed, that Carmen secured its world success. Yet the original version has a dramatic immediacy absent from the smoother recitative version, and in recent years, inspired particularly by the publication of a controversial scholarly edition by the German musicologist Fritz Oeser, the dialogue version has been performed more and more often. And this even despite the difficulty of finding actor-singers who are not uncomfortable with spoken French.
It is not, however, a simple problem of deciding between two versions, one original and one altered. Bizet himself made changes and cuts during rehearsals and after the first few performances. Some cuts were made for dramatic reasons, some were forced on him by adverse criticism, recalcitrant singers, or worried managements. There is no single original form, and Oeser’s edition, which has been used in San Francisco since 1981, has come under a good deal of critical attack.
The origins of the Carmen story are fairly well known and authenticated. Bizet’s two librettists, Henri Meilhac (later known particularly for the libretto to Massenet’s Manon and as the author of the original stage play on which The Merry Widow was based), and Ludovic Halévy, nephew to the eponymous composer, drew their material from two main sources: the more important of these was a novella entitled Carmen, published in 1845 by the French writer Prosper Mérimée, whose travels in Spain and Catalonia had given him a lively interest in Gypsies. The second was a poem by Pushkin, The Gypsies, which was translated from the Russian by the same Prosper Mérimée, some years after Carmen. Like the novella, Pushkin’s poem told of a tragic fugitive who loves a faithless Gypsy girl.
Mérimée’s Carmen, one of the first great novellas in the French language, is told in the first person, with an introduction setting the story in its context and with a curious semi-scholarly postscript on Gypsy folklore. The narrative is told by a bandit, who has killed a fellow Basque in a duel and been forced to leave his home country. Although the ending of Mérimée’s story differs from that of the opera, the essence of the opera’s plot is already there. Meilhac and Halévy, however, made significant changes. Several characters were given new names; the role of the Toreador was greatly expanded; and an entirely new character was introduced in the peasant girl Micaëla, who gave Bizet the lyrical counterpart to Carmen’s dramatic virility necessary for musical balance.
The Gypsies on whom Mérimée based his creation of La Carmencita are believed first to have appeared in Europe at the end of the fourteenth century. Their origins are buried obscurely in the Byzantine world from which they roamed westward and across Europe. At the time they were thought to have originated in Egypt, hence their name. Modern scholarship places their origin in central India. But, whatever their roots, they remained nomadic, harried, and persecuted, especially outside Spain. Northern European farmers dreaded the arrival of colorful nomads who liked to live free off their crops and livestock; villagers in their cottages resented roving caravan-dwellers without fixed homes; educationalists detested the Gypsy’s scorn for normal schools; and in our century, dictators have exterminated Gypsies along with Jews, homosexuals, and other supposed offenders against settled social systems and bourgeois Christian morality. It was a similar outraged morality that turned Carmen’s premiere audience into hysterical opposition as they came to see that the interesting new figures on the Opéra-Comique stage were not the safe and charming miscreants of the safe and charming repertoire they were used to.
It was only in the nineteenth-century literature that Gypsies began to assume the romantic image we now associate with them. The change was largely due to the writings of the Englishman George Borrow, whose Lavengro and Romany Rye were the cornerstones of later Gypsy imagery. Borrow, like Mérimée after him, traveled in Spain and Portugal and immersed himself in the life of the Gypsies of the Iberian peninsula; there are plentiful echoes of that immersion in Mérimée’s writing and they survived in the libretto for the opera. Bizet, however, never went to Spain, and in the age before recordings he would have known little about Spanish music. Although Carmen is popularly thought to epitomize Spain and its music, it is more French than it is Spanish. Some of the rhythms of Carmen, and perhaps a couple of the melodies, did originate in Spain, though one of the best known, the Habanera, comes not from Spain but from Havana and had its origins (as Bizet acknowledged) in simple chromatic folksong by the Cuban composer Sebastián Yradier. By slight alterations of harmony and rhythm and one or two note changes, Bizet transformed the simple original into a magical song that perfectly exemplifies the character of his Gypsy heroine. The Habanera almost never happened, for Bizet wrote a dozen versions of an opening song for his first Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié, all of which she rejected. It was only during rehearsals that Bizet hastily rewrote Yradier’s melody and incorporated it into his score.
By one of those strange coincidences that seem to go with operatic history, on the night Bizet died in the French countryside, far from Paris, Célestine Galli-Marié collapsed unconscious in the middle of a Carmen performance at the Opéra-Comique. She had been obsessed throughout the evening with the feeling that something was seriously wrong. It was later established that she fainted at precisely the moment of Bizet’s death, of which she could have known nothing.
It was an extraordinary era for the arts in Paris. Bizet’s experience with Carmen was not unique. The opera’s originality, its disastrous initial reception, and its subsequent popularity, have precise parallels in the work of painters who were just then being named Impressionists. Carmen was written in 1874 and first performed on March 3, 1875. The first Impressionist exhibition, the Salon de Refusés, was in 1874, and the name Peintres Impressionnistes was first accepted by the painters themselves at the second such salon the year following Carmen’s premiere.
The names of those composers and literary figures known to have attended that premiere are a reminder of the artistic ferment that characterized Parisian life of the period: Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, Delibes, Offenbach, Massenet, D’Indy, Alphonse Daudet, Alexandre Dumas fils. It was the era of the Goncourt brothers and their revealing Journal; of Zola’s sensual and sensational “Realist” novels; of Rimbaud, Renan, Flaubert, and Verlaine; the period of that adventurous pair of proto-surrealist novels, Lautrémont’s Chants de Maldoror and Huysman’s Au Rebors; the time in which Manet, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Boudin, Sisley, and Berthe Morisot were first becoming known. In the year in which Realism became the new martial cry of literary Paris, Bizet produced the first, and perhaps most complete, example of French opera to which the same term could properly be applied.
Bizet himself was a musician of natural talents so startling that he bears comparison as a child prodigy with Mendelssohn and Mozart. Like Mozart, he was an outstandingly gifted pianist. The story is told of his being taken, as a young student in Italy on a Prix de Rome scholarship, to one of Liszt’s salons. During the evening, Liszt played one of his latest compositions, of customary difficulty, remarking that he thought only two pianists in the world could perform it, himself and Hans von Bülow. Gounod, who had taken the young Bizet to the salon, suggested that his protégé might be another. Bizet thereupon played the most difficult section of the piece faultlessly from memory, later adding the entire composition, although he had heard it only once when Liszt himself played it.
Oddly, Bizet wrote very little original piano music, and what little he did write has been criticized for its essentially orchestral qualities. This may well be a reflection of Bizet’s circumstances: for the greater part of his career, as his own music failed to win acceptance, he earned his living working each day on arranging other peoples’ orchestral and operatic works for piano. In the days before the invention of the radio and phonograph, it was through such arrangements, the best of which came from Liszt, that most people got to know the existing repertory.
Despite the admiration of Liszt and the support of Gounod, his professor at the Paris Conservatoire, and the friendship of other musicians, Bizet failed to gain commercial success in his lifetime. He began work on some twenty-eight theater pieces, but many of them remained unfinished and although seven were staged, none had much acclaim. An early one-act operetta, Dr. Miracle, written when he was nineteen and still studying at the Conservatoire, won a competition organized by Offenbach, but it brought no ensuing fame. A remarkably skilled and enchanting Symphony in C major, written when he was seventeen, remained unplayed and forgotten among his manuscripts until its rediscovery in 1935. Berlioz, in his last published article, praised Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) at the opera’s premiere in 1863, but the public was less enthusiastic. Critical approval three years later for La Jolie Fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth) still brought no warmer public response. By now Bizet was thirty and had begun to despair of ever achieving success; more and more of his time was given over to musical hack-work, piano arrangements, and teaching. His private life, once filled with numerous more-or-less scandalous liaisons with women ranging from his mother’s housekeeper to the fantastic adventuress Céleste Mogador, changed to settled domesticity after 1869 when he married Geneviève Halévy, daughter of his former teacher of composition at the Conservatoire; but the change brought with it no greater public success.
Work after work was refused by the Paris theaters, or failed when brought to the stage, among them the highly original Djamileh, whose exquisite craftsmanship was later much admired by Mahler. As so often in operatic history, a great part of the responsibility for a string of operatic failures lay with the inadequacy of the libretti. When finally a first-class libretto did appear in Carmen, Bizet’s gifts were fully developed and his imagination triumphantly met the challenge. It was a tragic irony that the throat ailment that had increasingly plagued him since his student days now took a final deadly turn; though the initial reception of Carmen in Paris certainly seemed to confirm the pattern of failure to which the dying composer had become ever more depressingly accustomed, this time the failure was to be short-lived. It still took eight more years before Paris acknowledged the genius of the work that was recognized elsewhere almost at once as what it has remained ever since, the finest of all opéras comiques.
The very success of Carmen has militated against it. Overfamiliarity has blunted our ability to appreciate Bizet’s originality. Beneath the familiar and deceptively simple surface of Carmen lie masterly and complex compositional techniques. The harmonies are often those that are more regularly associated with the impressionistic composers, and even with the atonalists who followed Debussy; Bizet’s harmonic audacity always, however, serves a precisely calculated dramatic purpose. The melodies, too, reflect—on levels that range from extreme subtlety to deliberate banality—exactly the atmosphere Bizet wanted to portray; and the folksong elements and Spanish idioms are nevertheless wholly true to Bizet’s own individual nature. The orchestral scoring is of an extraordinary delicacy and colorist variety, frequently foreshadowing Mahler in the use of chamber-music forces within the orchestra and the reservation of the full force only for climactic moments where the orchestra plays its own role in the drama. Bizet’s contrapuntal skill is so perfectly at the command of his dramatic needs that its technical perfection in Carmen passes almost without notice.
Carmen is a masterpiece in which music and drama are wedded with a concision that parallels Mozart. Unlike Mozart, Bizet (who died at much the same early age as the Salzburg master) had only begun to achieve professional maturity when he died. Yet in Carmen he left a score that so miraculously combines dramatic use of varied material with the highest compositional skill that on the basis of this one opera he deserves to be ranked with the greatest opera composers. Nietzsche, perhaps somewhat overreacting to the contemporary forces of Wagnerism, was nevertheless right in praising the score of Carmen as extravagantly as he did: there is indeed not one note out of place, not one that could be removed, nor any need to add more. Yet Bizet died, supposedly heartbroken at Carmen’s reception in Paris, without knowing that his masterpiece would ever be anything but a failure.
Christopher Hunt has been a professor in the Arts Administration Program at Indiana University Bloomington since 2006. Before that he was for forty-five years an artist manager (London 1962–75), festival director (Wolf Trap, Adelaide, Ojai, PepsiCo Summerfare), and opera administrator (Royal Opera, Covent Garden; San Francisco Opera; Bastille Opera). This piece was published previously by San Francisco Opera Magazine.