Bizet's Carmen: a scandalous history !

The "femme fatale" that shocked the 19th-century bourgeoisie, the blonde Carmen that was booed at the Bastille opera in Paris... Ever since its creation, Georges Bizet's opera has sparked numerous scandals.

Bizet's Carmen: a scandalous history !
Bizet's Carmen: a scandalous history !, © Getty / Jean-Marc ZAORSKI

At the heart of the drama, a gypsy girl: Carmen. Created in 1847 by Prosper Mérimée, the character was resurrected thirty years later by Georges Bizet. The writer and the composer both contributed to the creation of a popular and legendary literary figure, the wild and seductive gypsy. 

Carmen is the object of all fantasies, the staging of what society, at a precise point in time, considered most sensual, seductive, indecent and provocative. It is unsurprising therefore that this opera is still the cause of various scandals, almost 150 years after its creation.

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Scandal no.1: the "femme fatale"

In 1875, the year in which Carmen was composed and first performed, the idea behind Carmen was a bold one. Whereas the bourgeois public of the Opéra-Comique in Paris was used to stories with happy endings, stories with innocent orphans and well-behaved ladies, Bizet dared to create a heroine capable of singing: "If you don't love me, I love you. If I love you, beware!" 

The Parisian public was surprised, even shocked by the provocative story of the gypsy seductress: cover the ears of the young single women still to be married! Carmen was deemed vulgar, and contrary to the healthy social values of the time. One should "gag her and put an end to her frantic hip thrusting by putting her in a straitjacket", wrote the musicologist Oscar Commettant in the publication Le Siècle

Dessin du costume de Carmen au 2e acte, 1875.
Dessin du costume de Carmen au 2e acte, 1875., © Getty / Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra National de Paris -Garnier.

Scandal no.2: a murder on stage

Though Georges Bizet and his librettists (Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy) attempted to nuance their libretto by introducing the consensual character Micaëla, a young peasant girl in live with Don José, this was not enough to make the work "acceptable" in the eyes of the public. Something else bothered audiences: the murder, on stage, of Carmen. 

Yet, at the end of the 19th century, on-stage deaths had already been shown, and the traditional rules of theatre etiquette were long broken: in Ruy Blas, Victor Hugo even depicted the suicide of his main protagonist. But the Opéra-Comique was not like other theatres, considered by many as the well-guarded temple of prude bourgeois entertainment. The murder of a woman by her lover in front of a high-society public was therefore a daring, and almost revolutionary, act. 

Scène finale du meurtre de Carmen par Don José, au Théâtre Antique d'Orange, en 2008.
Scène finale du meurtre de Carmen par Don José, au Théâtre Antique d'Orange, en 2008., © AFP

Scandal no.3: Carmen re-adapted

By October 1875, Bizet's opera, translated into German, had reached Vienna, and though back in Paris the Opéra-Comique did not dare announce another performance of Carmen on its stage, the work had already made its way through music of Europe (London, Barcelona, Amsterdam…). France's European neighbours were visibly far less shocked by the libertine character of the famous gypsy.  

Foreign audiences nonetheless questioned the nature of the work, and even expressed a certain disapproval. In 1982, Carmen was performed for the first time in Beijing. Despite the libretto's translation into Chinese and the story's adaption to local customs and traditions (no plunging necklines or on-stage kisses), the story of the libertine protagonist put to music by Bizet sparked countless debates, even on the other side of the world.  

Scandal no.4: minimalism and nudity

"An absurd and unflattering representation", title in 2012 of the Nouvel Obs article following the premiere of a new production of Carmen at the Opéra de Lyon, by the stage director Olivier Py. As is custom, the theatrical director revisited the work in its entirety. Carmen is now a cabaret dancer, such as those found at the Crazy Horse, her friends are drag queens, and Don José is a police officer. As for the stage design, it is hard to find a more minimalist production.  

The production divided audiences: where some applauded the fresh approach taken by Olivier Py to a work regularly performed, others only saw nonsense and gratuitous vulgarity. It is hard to change a myth, to modernise one of the repertoire's greatest works.  

Kate Aldrich incarne Carmen dans la mise en scène d'Olivier Py, à l'Opéra de Lyon, en 2014.
Kate Aldrich incarne Carmen dans la mise en scène d'Olivier Py, à l'Opéra de Lyon, en 2014., © AFP / Philippe Desmages

Scandal no.5: a blonde Carmen

Another production, another approach. On the stage of the Opéra Bastille in 2012, the Carmen portrayed by Yves Beaumesne is now blonde, inspired by Marilyn Monroe. The story now takes place during the Spanish Movida Madrileña movement of the 1970s, and the public could well believe they are watching a staged production of a film by Pedro Almodóvar. 

On the night of the premier, the production was loudly booed and criticised. Carmen's blonde hair sparked outrage: this time, the stage director had visibly changed the very essence of Carmen. For many, including the press, it was unthinkable to associate the fiery and sultry character of the Carmencita with a blonde and juvenile angel.  

En 2015, le metteur en scène Calixto Bieito choisit lui aussi une Carmen blonde pour sa production au London Coliseum.
En 2015, le metteur en scène Calixto Bieito choisit lui aussi une Carmen blonde pour sa production au London Coliseum., © Getty / Robbie Jack

Scandal no.6: Opportunism or feminism?

January 2018. In the wake of the #metoo movement, the voices of women were finally heard and the question of sexual harassment finally brought to light. "We cannot applaud the murder of a woman", declared the stage director Leo Muscato for his production of Carmen, in Florence (Italy). At the end of his production, the gypsy girl is not stabbed to death but instead resists and eventually kills her attacker, Don José. 

"When we go to see Carmen, it is not the murder that we applaud, but rather the work as a whole", replied the journalist Nadia Daam on the French radio station Europe 1. Was this a brilliant marketing stunt or a real attempt to revisit the work under a new light? In any case, much ink was spilled over Carmengate. Yet, few critics praised the work for its novel approach. Some found it problematic to change the original intrigue and outcome chosen for the work and set to music by Bizet. Others questioned the credibility of the director's "feminist" argument. 

Scandal no.7: a case of tabacco

"In the air, we follow the smoke with our eyes!", sings the choir of cigarette girls in the first act. "Slowly it goes to your head, so gently it exhilarates you!"

The first act of Carmen takes place in Seville, in front of a cigarette factory, thus explaining why so many productions of the opera stage their characters as smokers, often with a cigarette in their fingers. 

In 2014, the Perth West Australian Opera denounced the stage promotion of tobacco and thus cancelled all scheduled performances of the work. In reality, this decision was also motivated by a powerful investor: the Australian public foundation Healthway, firmly engaged in the fight against the consumption of tobacco and alcohol. 

Almost a century and a half after the work's creation, Bizet's opera still deals to this day with controversial subjects, current affairs, and social taboos. Murder, smoking, the representation of the female gender, not to mention the corrida, the gangs, and the stereotypes surrounding the gypsy community. However, this has not stopped Carmon from becoming one of the most performed operas in the world.  

La chanteuse Muriel Smith dans la peau de Carmen, en 1966.
La chanteuse Muriel Smith dans la peau de Carmen, en 1966., © Getty / Lee Tracey