The Carmen Myth: A Note from Music Director James Conlon
Georges Bizet’s last opera has struck deeply into the soul of Western Civilization. Its music is universally loved and its meaning constantly analyzed, debated and reinterpreted. As a protagonist, Carmen is unique. Contrary to many mythological characters who served as operatic subjects, she transcended her stage existence and then evolved into an archetype, a popular and modern myth. Unlike Don Juan, Faust and numerous Greek, Roman and Nordic mythological characters adapted for the opera stage, Carmen had little prehistory. But like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, her obvious male counterpart, she became immortal thanks to the genius of a composer. The protagonist of a short story by Prosper Mérimée, she was perfectly realized the moment Bizet set her to music.
Who is Carmen and what does she represent? Ask a dozen opera lovers, and there will be a dozen answers. Evil temptress, femme fatale, erotic demon, 19th-century Eve for some; victim of racism, gender inequality and social injustice, symbol of emancipation and feminine empowerment for others. Carmen speaks to the disenfranchised everywhere. She represents a heroine to the poor in a class-conscious 19th-century Europe, to women in a male-dominated world, to minorities in racist societies. She is a champion of liberated eroticism. She plays Venus to Micaëla’s Elisabeth, vying, as with Tannhaüser, for Don José’s soul. But there is no Wagnerian redemption for them: she brings about their mutual destruction. When the end comes, like Don Giovanni, she accepts her fate.
Ironically, the breadth and indefinability of Carmen and Don Giovanni render those two operas difficult to produce satisfactorily. Artur Schnabel’s maxim “Great music is music that is better than it can be performed” is eminently applicable to the question of why this might be so. We bring infinite expectations to both characters, which can never be fulfilled and consequently lead to our disappointment. Whoever interprets one of these two protagonists can emphasize only some of their many aspects, to the exclusion of others. There are many fine Carmens in the world, but none who can be everything at once. She is simply “about” too much.
Mérimée’s novella is one of many examples of western European artists turning to the “exotic” for inspiration. From Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio to Richard Strauss’ Salome, through Verdi and Puccini, the operatic muse has been ignited by “the Other,” whose power produced fascination, jealousy and fear.
As if on safari, Mérimée observed gypsy life in Spain, devouring what he saw and creating this captivating tale from the safe distance of his French culture. For Bizet and his French compatriots Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, Spain was a fascinating distant land. He mixed its exotic backdrop with the quintessentially 19th-century French “femme fatale” to produce a character so powerful that she would break the bonds of the operatic stage. Of many subsequent examples—Manon, Salammbô, Thaïs, Mélisande, Lulu—none have ascended to Carmen’s Olympian mythical stature. Bizet has the distinction of transforming a character who might not have outlived her time into a spirit capable of multiple reincarnations.
Many years ago, in Paris, I chanced upon a roundtable discussion on radio. The subject: What would happen if Don Giovanni met Carmen? There was general agreement that if someone were to “win” in this encounter, it would be she. But a more important theme emerged: Why are these two characters so important to us? One exchange struck me as particularly interesting. Would it be fair to say that every man, on some conscious or unconscious level, would like to be Don Giovanni, and every woman Carmen? Was there anyone whose paths had never crossed someone similar to either or both?
The two operas have little in common except that both take place in Seville and have immortalized their archetypical title characters. Could the two pro/antagonists actually meet, Carmen would “win”—to borrow a silly word from that not-so-silly radio discussion. She wins not just the battle of the sexes but also the reality test. He is an impossibility, a very tall tale, who exists only in the imagination. Kierkegaard thought he was a “theoretical construct,” a universe of zero. His authenticity resides not in himself but in his impact on the lives of others. He is many things to many people but nothing to himself. He is empty, and his myth begins to wither with age. But Carmen is real and grows more admirable as time goes on. The initial shock effect, visited on her first audiences has long worn off. The initial distress caused by her perceived unscrupulous, illegal and immoral behavior has given place to fascination with her complexity. She has become a heroine, due to her charismatic sexuality and fearless acceptance of the rules of the game. When the final card is turned up, she bravely plays out her fate.
Don Juan has his conquests and is nothing else. Carmen is complete in herself and needs nothing further. He desires all others because he is nothing. She is desired by others because she is complete, fulfilled and self-defined.
Bizet outlived Carmen’s premiere by only three months (to the day). Like Mozart, he died at the age of 36. In what direction he might have gone had he lived longer is unimaginable. Had Verdi died at that age, we would not have known Rigoletto, Il Trovatore or La Traviata. Wagner would not have completed Lohengrin, nor begun to compose the Ring or Tristan. Puccini would not yet have composed La Bohème, Tosca or Madame Butterfly.
Ferruccio Busoni observed that the act of composition is not so much about creating something out of nothing as discovering something that exists in the universe, and rendering it tangible. In those terms, Carmen had existed since time immemorial, waiting for Mérimée and Bizet to pluck her from the cosmos. Now, like a mythological goddess, she is revealed and rediscovered over and over again, in every rehearsal, performance and discussion of the opera that bears her name.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Opera News (Volume 61, No. 13; March 22, 1997). Reprinted with permission.