The original story
The original story of Carmen was published in 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée – part travelogue and part adventure book, it was inspired by the author’s travels to Spain and research on the Gitanos – the Spanish Romani community.
Mérimée’s narration recounts his personal adventures in Spain. Whilst it is unlikely that he met Don Jose and Carmen, who are fictional characters, the author was inspired by a story shared with him by the Countess of Montijo, a Spanish courtier. The original anecdote mentioned an Andalusian criminal who murdered his mistress; Mérimée developed it masterfully to create the now-famous tale.
When people hear the title Carmen, they will immediately think of Georges Bizet’s score with its iconic music such as the Habanera or Toreador.
The French composer was asked to write a new work for Paris Opéra-Comique, where he had already staged Djamileh, a love story between a slave girl and Turkish prince. Carmen was not an obvious choice for Opéra-Comique, which specialised in light, moralistic stories. Needless to say, a long and laborious creative process ensued. The lengthy rehearsals delayed the premiere date, the lead singer-actress demanded constant alterations of music to fit her voice, and the frequent changes to the libretto all caused tension between Bizet and Opéra-Comique’s management.
Bizet’s masterpiece finally premiered in 1875: depicting outlaws and lower classes rather than virtuous heroes, it scandalised audiences. Bizet was devastated by the overwhelmingly negative response to the work. He died of heart failure three months after the premiere, convinced that he had written the greatest failure in the history of opera.
Sadly, Bizet never lived to see the success of Carmen, which went on to be one of the most frequently performed works in the operatic repertoire. Since its premiere it has appeared on stages around the world and been imagined in a variety of settings including a burlesque club (Edward Dick for Opera North) to 1970s Spain (Calixto Bieito for English National Opera).
Carmen on film
There are many versions of Carmen for the silver screen. It has been adapted by film directors across the globe, encompassing a variety of genres – some musical, some not.
A Burlesque on Carmen (1915)
Directed by Charlie Chaplin, this is one of the earliest films about Carmen, giving the tale a comedic spin! Altering both the tone and the ending, this adaptation follows the story of beautiful Carmen pursued by Darn Hosiery (rather than Don Jose), a goofy officer in charge of guarding the city.
The Loves of Carmen (1948)
In this adaptation of the novella (rather than opera), Rita Hayworth, considered a sex symbol of the 1940s, played the title role. She was herself of Spanish Roma descent, making her particularly well-suited for the role. Her performance, however, met with mixed reviews, with some claiming she ‘’simply hasn’t got what it takes to play the role of Carmen’’.
Carmen Jones (1954)
In 1943, the musical Carmen Jones opened on Broadway, with music by Bizet and new English lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. The film adaptation appeared nine years later, to immediate acclaim.
The story is transposed to WWII: Carmen works in a parachute factory; the torero is now a boxer; and Don Jose is an Air Force soldier, Joe. Featuring an all-black cast, including Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, upon release the film was immediately successful, and quickly amassed a fan base and reached the status of a cult classic.
Man, Pride and Vengeance (1967)
Released in 1967 in Italy, this adaptation transcends genres and subverts expectations. It is one of the few Westerns not only filmed, but also set in Europe: Carmen’s native Andalusia. Remaining faithful to the original plot of love and betrayal, this production is filled with genre staples – bandits, robbery, and of course, a gun fight.
Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001)
This hip-hop musical, produced by MTV, set the story in modern-day Philadelphia and Los Angeles and featured a mostly R’n’b and hip-hop soundtrack. It owes much of its fame to Beyoncé Knowles, then still singer for Destiny’s Child, who played the lead character.
Carmen in dance
Since its inception, Bizet’s score has had a strong association with dance. Even the earliest productions of Carmen featured flamenco in the background, and independent dancers often used the music for their own performances. The story of love and brutality lends itself well to physical expression: here are some famous productions that used Bizet’s music – even including one on ice!
Roland Petit’s Carmen (1949)
Over a century after the original novella’s release, Roland Petit adapted Mérimée’s story into a ballet. Set to Bizet’s score, it combines classical ballet, Spanish-style dance and mime to create a strikingly original production. Fittingly for a famous love story, Petit, who not only choreographed but also starred this production as Don Jose, created the role of Carmen for his wife, Zizi Jeanmaire.
Carmen on Ice (1990)
Yes, you read that right. This 1990 dance film transports 19th century Spain onto ice, and follows the opera story closely. The main characters were played by Olympic champions Katarina Witt and Brian Boitano. Witt had been awarded gold medal at 1988 Winter Olympics, winning the so-called ‘Battle of the Carmens’, as two competing skaters independently chose to perform their choreography to Bizet’s music.
Mats Ek’s Carmen (1992)
Mats Ek is famous for his subversive, inventive productions. His 1992 retelling of Carmen reverses the gender dynamic between main characters: ‘’in my piece, Carmen is a sort of man, and Don Jose is a sort of woman’’ he said. ‘’Carmen has a job, she takes lovers, she has a free position in society, although it is because she is expelled from it. Don Jose wants marriage, safety, a home. Traditionally those have been male and female positions, so each is still the other’s complement, but from opposite sides.’’ (LA Times)
Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man
Rather than using Bizet’s score, The Car Man is set to Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, with a story loosely based on the original. The action takes place in the 1960s small-town America inspired by the plot of James M. Cain’s crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. The humorous title refers to the main male character, a drifter, who is the object of desire at the heart of the show.
Johan Inger’s Carmen (2015)
With its focus on the dark undercurrents of the story, rather than its sensuality, this adaptation is much closer to the original novella. A sense of foreboding accompanies the viewer throughout; as the tale unravels, audiences explore the iconic story of passion and brutality as perceived by Don Jose’s troubled mind.
The music of Carmen in pop culture
Bizet’s Carmen may have been poorly received at the time of its premiere, but today, almost 150 years later, its music is iconic – so much that it’s been used in various contexts, often for subversive or comedic effects. Here are a few examples:
Bizet’s score was introduced to young audiences through Sesame Street, an educational television show for children. American opera singers were invited to perform iconic pieces with child-friendly lyrics: Denyce Graves performed a Habanera-inspired lullaby for Elmo, and Samuel Ramey sung praise to the letter L to the sounds of Toreador Song.
The Muppet Show’s beloved characters came together to sing their hilarious iteration of Habanera. Beaker’s vocal skill, Swedish Cook’s stylish outfit and Animal’s cameo created an unforgettable performance that amused children and grown-ups alike.
The Habanera featured in the animated film Up, used as the soundtrack for the main character’s morning. The rhythmic melody reflects the monotony of widower Karl’s life, yet the passionate themes of the song contrast his dull routine.
In 2013 Belgian singer and songwriter Stromae released his song Carmen, featuring a melody inspired by Bizet’s score. The song opens with a line from Habanera: “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser,” (Love is a wild bird that no one can tame), and takes it in an unexpected direction. Lyrics discuss the fickle nature of social media, specifically Twitter, whose logo was a blue bird until 2023.