“A Rebellious Bird That Nobody Can Tame”

A knife-wielding heroine, a controversial ending, and a theatre full of horrified aristocrats. . . . Welcome to opening night of Carmen, 1875.

“Love is a rebellious bird
that nobody can tame,
and you call him quite in vain
if it suits him not to come.

Love is a gypsy’s child,
it has never, ever, known a law . . .
The bird you thought you had caught
beat its wings and flew away . . .”

–From “Habanera” from Carmen (George Bizet)

Chances are that, whatever your level of expertise with classical music, you could probably hum Bizet’s “Habanera” from Carmen, even if you don’t know you know it.  Whether your car radio is permanently tuned to the classical radio station, or you hear that melody and think, “Hey, that’s that song from The Aristocats!” (the good stuff starts around the 2:30 mark), “Habanera” is one of those iconic opera songs that has entered the pop culture lexicon along with “O Fortuna” and “Ride of the Valkyries.”  So how do you take a tune we’ve all heard over and over, dust it off, and reveal the beating heart underneath?  By going back to the source.  To us pop-culture-saturated, 21st-century audience members, it might be “that one song from that opera that was in that TV commercial,” but in Bizet’s time, it was anything but mainstream; in fact, upon its debut Carmen was so shocking that it almost tanked the the theatre producing it and was widely derided as the death of the opéra comique art form.

Opening Night Disasters

In 1873 Camille du Locle, artistic director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, commissioned the composer Georges Bizet to write an opera based on an 1845 French novella by Prosper Mérimée called Carmen, which was in turn based on an 1824 Russian narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin called The Gypsies.  There were problems from day one.  The score took months longer to finish than du Locle had planned, delaying rehearsals until summer of 1874.  The novella’s scandalous reputation created casting problems – their first choice for leading lady turned down the role because she’d read the book, so they had to scramble to find a backup actress who hadn’t.  They ended up with the famous singer Galli-Marié, but she was a theatrical megastar with some definite opinions regarding her salary and special treatment; financial negotiations with her management pushed rehearsals back even more.  Then du Locle’s assistant, Adolphe de Leuven, happened to catch some of the rehearsals and was appalled by the opera’s violent ending.  He pushed Bizet and the librettists to change it to make it more palatable; the librettists agreed but Bizet refused, and de Leuven ended up resigning in frustration.  But even when the work was finally complete and rehearsals were underway, Bizet’s problems weren’t over.  The orchestra hated the score and declared it “unplayable,” and Bizet was pushing the cast so far outside their comfort zones that they were constantly at sea.  But the worst resistance came from du Locle himself.  Even though he considered Bizet a friend, he hated Carmen.  He was desperate for a big hit that would boost the Opéra-Comique’s flagging ticket sales, and the more he saw of this controversial, violent, racy opera, the more sure he was that the critics (and audiences) would hate it.

Unfortunately, he was right.  The opening night audience was well-stocked with some of the era’s finest composers and musicians, and while a scant handful of them saw the opera for what it was – a game-changing genre experiment that was transform the future of opera – most of them thought it was garbage.  They liked Act I, and a few songs in Act II got some applause, but by the time Acts III and IV came around, and the opera’s sex-and-violence themes surged to the forefront, the performers were greeted with stony silence.  The reviews were scathing, and towards the end of the (already-shortened) run, the theatre was giving away tickets for free in a desperate attempt to fill seats.

Violent Gypsies and Scandalized Aristocrats

In the 19th century, the Opéra-Comique was a genteel establishment for the cultural elite, a family-friendly social destination whose private boxes were frequently used by Parisian aristocratic families to interview their prospective sons-in-law.  At that time, there was a clear and well-known distinction between opéra  and opéra comique, and it had nothing to do with comedy or tragedy; the differences were mostly stylistic.  The opéra comique featured spoken word dialogue as well as arias, and the content was often more “bourgeois”, while classic opéra often focused more on heroic, loftier characters.  But by 1875, the year Carmen premiered, the opéra comique genre had become somewhat stagnant and audiences were growing tired of it.  Then along came Bizet, with his racy tale of gypsies and bullfighters told in the opéra comique style but with the tragic heft of the greatest classic opéras, blurring the lines between genres so thoroughly that within a few years, the distinctions were all but eradicated.  It would be nearly impossible to overstate the impact this work had on the operas that came after it; not only did it transform the opéra comique genre almost past recognition, but it ushered in a new style popularly known as “verismo,” which soared to popularity in Italian operas in the following decades.  In “verismo” operas, instead of following the plights of kings and heroes, the characters are ordinary working-class men and women whose lives are shaped by sex, violence, crime, and death.  Carmen, the opera’s namesake, was no virtuous heroine or stately queen; she was a knife-wielding, fiery-tempered gypsy who used her sexuality to dominate men and lead them to their destruction.  Nobody like her had ever appeared on the Opéra-Comique’s stage before. For the audiences of 19th-century Paris, it was the difference between William Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino.

Redemption In Vienna

Bizet died of a heart attack in 1875, in the middle of Carmen’s ill-fated run at the Opéra-Comique.  He was young, only 36 years old, and he never saw his opera become a success.  The day before he died, he signed the paperwork for a production of Carmen in Vienna, with no idea that the papers he was signing would turn his reputation around completely.  The Viennese production was a smash hit; audiences there couldn’t care less about whether a certain work respected the traditional conventions of opéra comique, and they were a great deal less concerned about the propriety of the subject matter when they went to the theatre.  They came in droves, with no preconceptions, and they loved what they saw and heard.  After Vienna, Carmen was box office gold, and within just a few years it had been produced everywhere from New York to Budapest to Sydney.  It finally returned to the  Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1883, and by then the buzz had circled back to the French elite who were prepared to love it as much as their equally-cultured British, Spanish, American, Russian, and Italian brethren had.  These days it’s the #3 most-performed opera in the world, and its two lead characters, Carmen and Don José are two of the most coveted roles in the opera canon.


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