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For other uses, see Carmen (disambiguation)
Poster from the 1875 premiere of Carmen
Poster from the 1875 premiere of Carmen

Carmen is a French opera by Georges Bizet. The libretto was written by Meilhac and Halévy, based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée.

It was first performed at the Opéra Comique of Paris on March 3, 1875. During its time, the opera was considered a failure, denounced as "immoral" and "superficial", but now it is a staple of the standard operatic repertoire. There are many recordings of it, and it is frequently performed.

The Spanish gypsy Carmen lives only for sensuality. Love drives her from passion to passion. After she has loved many, she is attracted by the sergeant Don José, encompasses him with her wiles, and leads him to mutiny and desertion, so that finally nothing remains for him but to join a band of smugglers of which Carmen is a member. His fate is endurable as long as he retains the love of Carmen, but when she turns from him he is sunk in a pit of grief.

The most well-known themes from this opera include the Toreador Song, the Habanera, and the Prelude.


Compositional History

Bizet’s original plan was to have written the score by December 1873, however, these were postponed until August 1874, with the first performance in October. He bought a house at Bougival on the Seine, where he finished in the score in the summer of 1874. It took him two months to complete the orchestrations. The delays were due to the difficulty in finding a leading lady. At least one actress refused the part to avoid scandal; however, Galli-Marié accepted it in December without seeing the score. Du Locle’s (Bizet’s director) assistant De Leuven disagreed with Bizet on the subject of the opera, in particular the ending, and pressured the composer and librettists to change the ending to be more suited to the Opéra-Comique. The librettists resigned to change the story, but Bizet refused, causing De Leuven to resign in early 1874. The rehearsals finally began in October, and went for an unprecedented five months. The orchestra and conductor declared some of the music unplayable, but the staunchest opposition came from Du Locle, who liked Bizet personally, but hated the opera. The Opéra-Comique was in dire financial difficulties, and Du Locle felt that the opera would detract from its family friendly image. The librettists, who did not believe in the story, and were more concerned with other works, secretly tried to induce the singers to tone down their realism. However, the final rehearsals seemed to convince most of the company of the brilliance of the opera.

The first performance took place on the March 3, the same day Bizet was presented with the Legion of Honor. The opening night audience was shocked by the opera, though they did not vocalise their opinion. Act I was fairly well received and the entr’acte to Act II was applauded. However, with the exception of Micaela’s aria in Act III, silence greeted the final acts. The critics were scathing, labeling the libretto far too debauched for the stage. It was condemned for following Wagner in placing the orchestra higher than the voice in importance. However, the poet Théodore de Banville wrote a review that stated that the characters were more realistic than those of the ordinary Opéra-Comqiue, which were mere puppets. Unfortunately, the negative reviews caused the opera to only have 48 performances in the first year, which has led some to believe that it did not originally fail. Towards the end of its run, the management was selling tickets wholesale in a vain attempt to make a profit. The failure caused Galli-Marié to become unemployable until the opera was realized as a masterpiece.

Over the years, it has become the most performed opera the world over, and is a guaranteed earner for companies. Despite the title role being written for Mezzo-soprano, many famous sopranos have recorded the role. Some, such as Victoria de los Angeles and Leontyne Price, were more successful than others, such as Maria Callas, whose voice was not suited to the role.

Dramatic Elements

The innovations in the opera were apparent. No longer was French Opera confined to one-dimensional comic characters. The descent of Don José from a faithful lover and soldier to an obsessed lunatic, who removes the rebellious element of his life, is beautifully portrayed through the music. Likewise, Bizet’s music ensures that Carmen does not become a destructive figure such as Elektra or Lulu. She does not chase men, they run after her. Because Bizet shied away from the traditional femme-fatale of grand opera makes, Carmen becomes one of the most richly detailed characters in opera. Don José is destroyed through his obsession, whereas she is killed through her emotions. Carmen is portrayed as a fatalistic, hedonistic woman who lives entirely in the present. This is expressly presented in the card playing scene (No.20), in which Carmen accepts the premonition of death (pg 58). The one thing that enraptures Carmen is change, which is also what José, the soldier, despises. Even after she chooses José as a lover, she flirts with Zuniga and Escamillo. This inconstancy is perceived by José as anarchy, and thus, he removes the anarchic element from his life.

Carmen and José have three duets, which represent three stages of their relationship. The first in Act I is the seduction, the second is Act II is the conflict, and the last in Act IV is the resolution of the conflict. Musically, the duets are not in the style of the traditional French or Italian duets, where two voices become one. Instead they are full of tension and anger. The supporting characters, Micaela and Escamillo, are not as developed as the two protagonists, and are only used to reflect upon the leads. Micaela represents José’s naïve past, whereas Escamillo represents Carmen’s exciting future. Micaela is taken straight out of Gounod’s lyric operas, whereas Escamillo is taken from the traditional opera comique. Both are given only two songs each. Micaela has a slight aria in Act III, however, Escamillo has the most popular song in the score. Bizet knew that the song would be popular, but he secretly despised it, saying “They want their trash, and will get it”.

Musical Elements

When asked if he would visit Spain for research, Bizet replied "No, that would only confuse me." Bizet elegantly works elements of the national music into the score, even though the music is not directly Spanish. However, several pieces, especially the Seguidilla (No.10) and the Gypsy Song (No.12) make great use of the elements of flamenco music. Also, the Act IV entr’acte seems to be influenced by a Spanish song by Manuel Garcia, probably incorporating elements of gypsy music.

Bizet worked several popular Spanish song from the time into the score. These include El arreglito sung by José in Act II (No.16), and the folk-song Carmen impudently sings when interrogated by Zuniga; both written by Yradier. The habanera (No.5) was written to replace an aria that Galli-Marié disliked, and was also based on the melody of a song by Iradier.

There are two motifs associated with Carmen. The most famous is referred to as the Carmen Fate motif, (No.1a) and owes its augmented 2nds to Spanish Music.

It is ominously heard directly after the Prelude, and predetermines the ending of the opera. It is heard in this form when Carmen chooses José as her lover (No.6), at the beginning of the Flower Song (No.17), and during the opera’s final moments (No.27). It is also heard in a sped up form, first heard at the entrance of Carmen. This theme is more often heard in the strings, and is used to represent Carmen herself rather than her fate. It is heard often throughout the opera, most notably during the card playing scene (No.20). The other theme associated with Carmen represents her influence over José. It heard after José is chosen as Carmen’s lover (No.6), and when Carmen is taken away by the police to José and Zuniga. This soaring theme is, like Carmen, both beautiful and tragic.

Dialogue versus Recitative

Bizet’s original design of Carmen had dialogue in place of the standard recitatives. When the opera became popular, the musical community felt it would be more appreciated in the form of Grand Opera. Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud wrote recitatives for Vienna’s premiere performance in 1875 that are today seen as damaging to the work as a whole. The recitatives destroyed Bizet’s careful pacing, and disrupted the process of characterization significantly. However, a new edition in 1964 by Fritz Oeser claimed to have restored Bizet’s original vision by including material previously cut from the main performance as well as restoring the dialogue. Unfortunately, Oeser did not realise that a great deal was cut by Bizet himself, and subsequently included several sections that were not intended by the creator. He also made great changes to the stage directions and rewrote some of the libretto. Today only adequate score is a vocal score by Bizet himself, published in 1875. There is still no accurate full score, and each production is judged on the skills of the director and conductor in choosing a version.



A number of classical composers have used themes from Carmen as the basis for works of their own. Some of these, such as Pablo de Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy (1883) for violin and orchestra, Franz Waxman's Carmen Fantasie for violin and orchestra and Vladimir Horowitz's Variations on a theme from Carmen for solo piano are virtuoso showpieces in the tradition of fantasias on operatic themes. Ferruccio Busoni wrote a Sonatina (No.6) for piano named Fantasia da camera super Carmen (1920), which uses themes from the opera. There are also two suites of music drawn directly from Bizet's opera, often recorded and performed in orchestral concerts.


In 1915, Cecil B. DeMille directed a 59-minute silent film version of the opera. In the United States, it was adapted into an African-American setting as Carmen Jones, which was a success both as a stage production and as a feature film. In 1983, Jean-Luc Godard directed another film version, Prénom Carmen. MTV also made a version, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, starring Beyoncé Knowles as Carmen. A recent adaptation was U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (2005), set in Khayelitsha, South Africa; and sung in Xhosa. The film received the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. However, the most famous film version of carmen remains the 1984 Lorin Maazel version, which starred Julia Migenes in the role of Carmen and Placido Domingo as her scorned lover, Don Jose.


Rodion Shchedrin wrote a Carmen ballet (1967) directly based on the opera.




Setting: Seville, Spain at the beginning of the 19th century.

Act I

A beautiful square in Seville with bridge. Morales and the soldiers are on guard, bored. Micaëla appears seeking José, her fiancé, but is accosted by the impudent soldiers and escapes (No.2). As José approaches to change the guard, he and the soldiers are imitated by the street-children (No.3). The cigarette girls emerge from the factory, greeted by their men (No.4). Carmen appears, wooed by all, (No.5). When asked to choose a lover, she throws a flower in front of José. José is temporarily transfixed until Micaëla brings him a letter and greeting from his mother (No.7). As soon as she leaves, screams are heard from the factory and the women enter, and Don José and his superior, Zuniga try to sort out the trouble. Carmen has been fighting with another, and slashed her with a knife (No.8). Zuniga attempts to interrogate Carmen who impudently sings a folk song, ignoring him (No.9). Zuniga instructs José to arrest her, and escort her to the gaol. Carmen seduces José with a Seguidilla (No.10), and convinces José to let her escape (No.11).

Act II

Evening at Lillas Pastia's inn, frequented by smugglers. Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercedes sing and dance (No.12). Zuniga attempts to woo Carmen, but she can only think of José. The Matador Escamillo is greeted with great enthusiasm by the patrons (No.13). He sings the Toreador song (No.14) and also attempts to woo Carmen. The smugglers Dancairo, Remendado discuss plans with Carmen and her gypsy friends (No.15). Carmen refuses to accompany them, for she only can think of José. José arrives (No.16) and is forced to join the smugglers by Dancairo and Remendado. He and Carmen are left alone, and she vexes him with stories of her dancing. She dances for him alone (No.17), and he pledges his devotion to her in the flower song. Surprised by Zuniga, he draws his sword upon his superior officer; the lieutenant is disarmed by the smugglers and José is forced to fly with Carmen as he has fought with Zuniga (No.18).


A rocky gorge, where the smugglers ply their trade. José arrives with the smugglers (No.19), but Carmen loves him no longer. Her inconstant heart now turns to Escamillo. Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes card read (No.20). The smugglers plan their actions (No.21). Frasquita and Mercedes forsee wealth and luxury, however, Carmen's forsee death for her and José. A fight between José and Escamillo over Carmen is narrowly averted by the smugglers (No.22). Micaëla arrives (No.23) and tells José that his mother is dying, and with threats to Carmen he leaves the band (No.24).

Act IV

A square before the arena at Seville. The general populace prepare for the bull fight (No.25) and they see the cuadrilla arrive (No.26). Carmen promises herself to Escamillo if he returns victorious. As she is entering the arena she is confronted by the pale and despairing José (No.27). For the last time he demands her love and fidelity. When she throws back the ring that he gave her, he stabs her to the heart and she dies at the moment that the victorious Escamillo arrives upon the scene. José, completely broken, confesses his action to all.

Musical Numbers

Main Article: Music of Carmen

Act One

  • 1. The Prelude (consisting of Voici la cuadrilla!, Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre, and the Carmen fate theme)
  • 2. Sur la place, Chacun passé (Chorus - What a bustling, What a hustling); Chorus of soldiers, Micaela, Morales..
  • 3. Avec la garde montante (Chorus - With the guard on duty going); Chorus of street-boys, Morales, Don José.
  • 4. La cloche a sonné (Chorus - 'Tis the noon-day bell); Chorus of cigarette-girls, chorus of men, Carmen.
  • 5. L'amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera - Love is like a rebellious bird); Carmen, Chorus of men and cigarette-girls.
  • 6. Carmen! sur tes pas nous nous pressons tous! (Chorus - Carmen! we all follow wherever you go!); Chorus of men and cigarette-girls.
  • 7. Parlemoi de ma mère! (Duet - Tell me, what of my mother?); Don José and Micaela.
  • 8. Que se passetil donc làbas? (Chorus - What can be going on below?); Zuniga, Chorus of cigarette girls.
  • 9. Mon officier, c'était une querelle (Song and Melodrama - Captain, I find that there has been a quarrel); Don José, Carmen, Zuniga, Chorus of cigarette-girls.
  • 10. Près des remparts de Séville (Seguidilla - Near to the walls of Sevilla); Carmen, Don José.
  • 11. Voici l'ordre (Finale - Here is the order); Zuniga, Carmen.

Act Two

  • Entr'acte (Haltelà! Qui va là? Dragon d'Alcala!)
  • 12. Les tingles de sisters tintaient (Gypsy Song - The sound of sistrumbars did greet); Carmen, Frasquita, Mercedes.
  • 13. Vivat! Vivat le Toréro! (Chorus - Hurrah! hurrah! The Toréro!); Chorus of men, Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen, Morales, Zuniga.
  • 14. Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre (Couplets - For a toast, you own will avail me); Escamillo, Chorus of men, Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen, Morales, Zuniga.
  • 15. Nous avons en tête une affaire (Quintet - We have undertaken a matter); Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen, El Remendado, El Dancaïro.
  • 16. Haltelà! Qui va là? Dragon d'Alcala! (Canozetta - Have a care! Who goes there? Man of Alcala!); Don José, Carmen.
  • 17. Je vais danser en votre honneur (Duet - Now I shall dance for your reward); Don José, Carmen.
  • 18. Holà! Carmen! holà! holà! (Finale); Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen, El Remendado, El Dancaïro, Don José, Zuniga, Chorus of men and women.

Act Three

  • Entr'acte
  • 19. Écoute, écoute, compagnon, écoute! (Sextet and Chorus - Attention, attention, comrades, all together!); Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen, Don José, El Remendado, El Dancaïro, Chorus of Smugglers.
  • 20. Mêlons!, Coupons! (Trio - Shuffle! Cut them!); Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen.
  • 21. Quant au douanier (Morceau d'ensemble - As for the guard); Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen, El Remendado, El Dancaïro, Chorus of Smugglers.
  • 22. Je dis, que rien ne m'épouvante (Aria - I say that nothing shall deter me); Micaela.
  • 23. Je suis Escamillo (Duet - I am Escamillo); Escamillo, Don José.
  • 24. Holà! holà! José! (Finale); Micaela, Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen, Don José, El Remendado, El Dancaïro, Chorus of Smugglers.

Act Four

  • Entr'acte
  • 25. A deux cuartos! (Chorus - For two cuartos!); Zuniga, Chorus of men and women.
  • 26. Les voici la quadrille! (Chorus and March - Here comes the cuadrilla!); Frasquita, Mercedes, Carmen, Escamillo, Chorus of children, men, and women.
  • 27. C'est toi! C'est moi! (Duet and final Chorus); Carmen, Don José, Chorus of men and women.



Winton Dean, Bizet, Georges, The New Grove. 1980, ed. Sadie, Stanley.

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