The Secret Victorianist was back at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York last week to see Georges Bizet’s Carmen (premiered Paris 1875), which vies for the title of ‘most popular opera in the world’ along with Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s The Magic Flute depending on your methodology.
Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ and ‘Toreador Song’ arias are now familiar even among non-lovers of opera, but did you know these facts about the work’s inception?
|Clémentine Margaine in the Met's 2018 production|
1. The opera was based on an 1845 novella of the same name by French writer Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870). While the stories have similarities there are key differences. For instance, in Mérimée’s text Carmen has a husband.
2. The first ‘Carmen’ was mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié who was rumoured to be conducting an affair with Bizet throughout the rehearsal period. Galli-Marié kept pet marmosets, which, at times, accompanied her to rehearsals.
3. The immediate critical response to Carmen was, well, critical. Applause petered out by the final act with the audience disconcerted by the amorality of the major characters. One critic described the heroine herself as ‘the very incarnation of vice’.
4. Over the next decades though the opera grew in popularity—albeit outside its homeland. Audiences in Austria and Germany in particular responded well to the work. Carmen was not revived in France again until 1883.
5. Composer Bizet did not live to see his masterpiece’s triumph. He died, aged 36, in June 1875—3 months after Carmen’s premiere.
6. The first audio recording of the opera was made in 1908 with Czech soprano Emmy Destin in the titular role. In this case the performance was in German, rather than the original French.
7. Carmen has spawned adaptations across multiple media—from Carmen on Ice to Carmen: A Hip Hopera, a 2001 movie starring Beyoncé.