“Carmen:” the saddest story ever told

Carmen at the Merola Opera Program, 1997.

If you grew up in the ’90s, you’ve probably seen at least a few installments of “Hey Arnold!”, one of Nickelodeon’s many animated series. Like any other 9-year-old, I was a serious cartoon enthusiast, and this show ranked among my top three. One episode in particular still rattles around in my memory, recently rehashed by the most recent discussion in J.D. McClatchy’s class, “The Opera Libretto.” This episode, first aired in 1997, features a dream sequence between Helga and Arnold wherein they adopt respective roles in Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” (they are, of course, sleeping through a performance of the very same opera).

Unfortunately, what Football-Head doesn’t tell you is that while “Carmen” has become one of the most famous modern operas, it certainly didn’t start out that way; in fact, frustration and ignominy plagued its first days. The history of “Carmen” reflects the heartbreaking story of Bizet’s adult life. In his student days, Georges Bizet enjoyed a brilliant string of successes. In 1857, he secured the Prix de Rome, a prestigious French arts scholarship of the 19th century, for his excellence in composition. Bizet showed brilliant promise at the keyboard, having impressed even the godlike Franz Liszt (then Europe’s darling pianist) with an impromptu dinner party performance in 1861. But for all intents and purposes, Bizet’s professional career floundered. He shied away from public performance, favoring operatic composition instead. Yet Paris, the veritable Mecca of the French operatic tradition, rebuffed most of his music, for Parisians preferred the established repertoire to the efforts of some whippersnapper.

Given such a predilection, Bizet’s first two operas, “Les pêcheurs de perles” and “La jollie fille de Perth,” received lukewarm receptions. Worse still, his health was never good — he was constantly afflicted with throat abscesses, and in his own words, he “suffered like a dog.” The last (and saddest) chapter of Bizet’s life began after a stint in the French National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Fortunately, Bizet still had some supporters: Camille du Locle, the artistic director of the prestigious Opéra-Comique, commissioned Bizet to compose an opera based on Prosper Merimée’s 1873 novella “Carmen.” By the summer of 1874, Bizet had finished the score and the Opéra-Comique had secured a leading lady in the famous mezzo-soprano Celestine Galli-Marié. But the “Carmen” project seemed doomed to fail before it had even begun. The orchestra and chorus members declared sections of their parts simply impossible, and the subject matter proved contentious from the get-go: the passionate, and eventually fatal, tryst between a Spanish corporal and a lascivious gypsy woman was a far cry from the normal Parisian fare.

Finally, on March 3, 1875, after painful months of rehearsal, “Carmen” debuted to a sold-out crowd — the “who’s who” of Paris. The first act was wildly applauded, but as the night wore on, the audience grew notably colder. Bizet’s own reaction after the final curtain said it all: convinced he had put on a flop, the composer fled the theater and walked the streets of Paris with a friend until dawn. Critics lambasted the libretto in particular, deeming it much too inappropriate for the Opéra-Comique, a house of culture and family-friendly productions. In fact, “Carmen” was so poorly reviewed that the theater nearly pulled it after only its fourth performance. Wounded, the production continued, and although audiences began to warm to the fledgling work, “Carmen” could not live down its first scathing reviews.

Bizet, his throat condition having worsened, left the city to convalesce in his country house. Unfortunately, just after the opera’s 30th performance on June 3, Bizet passed away in the wee hours of the morning. In what must be one of the most tragic twists of fate, Bizet, just the day before, had signed a contract scheduling a Viennese production, the very one that sparked the opera’s precipitous rise to worldwide acclaim. Before the century was out, opera houses from Melbourne to Budapest had produced “Carmen,” and just before Christmas Day, 1904, it had already enjoyed its 1000th performance. Before long, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Brahms all made their support of Bizet’s great work known. Even Neitzsche, in “The Case of Wagner,” confessed that he could not get enough of the opera.

And now, more than a century later, productions of “Carmen” still play across the globe. It is in every sense of the word a masterpiece — visionary, impassioned and finely crafted. Would that Bizet might have seen his complex magnum opus find its way from an infamous birth into arguably the best episode of my favorite children’s show.

Performances of “Carmen,” as well as many other operas, can be accessed from a Yale server at http://opiv.alexanderstreet.com/.

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