An introduction to Carmen

Here’s everything you need to know about ENO’s production of Bizet’s Carmen.

It’s Georges Bizet’s greatest opera

Thanks to its depiction of love, obsession and jealousy, Carmen is one of the most popular operas ever written.

Army Corporal Don José finds himself unable to resist cigarette worker Carmen’s charm, even when he is supposed to be guarding her prison cell. The tumultuous affair that begins between the pair comes to an abrupt halt when Carmen turns her attention to bullfighter Escamillo. Don José’s love for the femme fatale soon turns to jealousy and violence.

Read the full synopsis

Bizet was a French composer who also had success with his 1863 opera, The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles).

It’s based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée

Having impressed the Opéra-Comique’s theatre director, Camille du Locle, with his one-act opera, Djamileh, Bizet was invited to collaborate on a new full-length work in 1872. Bizet suggested to librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy (who had previously worked with Jacques Offenbach) an adaptation of Mérimée’s Carmen.

In adapting the novella for his opera, Bizet added a number of characters, notably, the addition of the female singing roles Micaëla, Frasquita, and Mercédès. Bizet also chose to omit Carmen’s husband from the opera, and changed Lucas’ name to Escamillo.

Its 1875 premiere received a lukewarm reception

Although the opera had more performances during its first run than any of Bizet’s previous works, the composer was seriously affected by the bad criticism it initially received.

Audiences at the Opéra-Comique, where the production premiered, were said to be shocked at this tale of obsession and violence, having been used to somewhat lighter operas. Nevertheless, it was still running some three months later when Bizet died, aged just 36.

Soon after the composer’s death, the opera premiered in Vienna as a great success. It subsequently travelled around the globe and remains one of the most staged operas to this day.

It features some very famous music

Carmen is filled with catchy tunes, the two most famous being Escamillo’s Act 2 ‘Toreador Song’ and Carmen’s ‘Habanera’.

The recognisable music from the Toreador song has been a pop culture favourite for some time. You might have seen it covered by opera singer Samuel Ramey on Sesame Street. In The Simpsons, it is heard when the family pay a visit to see Carmen at the opera.

The Habanera, in which Carmen sings about love being a rebellious bird that cannot be tamed, was famously covered by Beyoncé in this commercial. More recently, it featured in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and in the Disney Pixar movie Up.

As the opera is set in Spain, Bizet sought to add Spanish inflections to his score. He used Spanish Folksongs and Flamenco music to inspire the music in the opera.

Calixto Bietio’s production returns to the London Coliseum

Admired throughout Europe, Bieito’s staging is transported from the original nineteenth century setting to the tail end of Franco’s regime in the 1970s.