Bizet’s Premieres in Paris

The first performance of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen was not well received, but the work soon became one of the mainstays of the operatic repertoire. It continues to be performed in many languages on stages around the world, and it has been adapted for film, ballet, and musical theater.

Summary of Event

The premiere of the opera Carmen by the French composer Georges Bizet on March 3, 1875, was poorly received. The audience was shocked by the portrayal of lower-class characters in Seville, Spain—particularly by the onstage depiction of the murder of the title character by her lover. However, audiences at a production staged later that year in Vienna, Vienna;opera Austria, were drawn to the strong characters, exotic locales, colorful gypsy scenes, and engaging music, and Carmen soon became one of the favorite and most often performed works in the operatic repertoire. Carmen (Bizet)
Bizet, Georges
Mérimée, Prosper
[kw]Bizet’s Carmen Premieres in Paris (Mar. 3, 1875)
[kw]Carmen Premieres in Paris, Bizet’s (Mar. 3, 1875)
[kw]Premieres in Paris, Bizet’s Carmen (Mar. 3, 1875)
[kw]Paris, Bizet’s Carmen Premieres in (Mar. 3, 1875)
Carmen (Bizet)
Bizet, Georges
Mérimée, Prosper
[g]France;Mar. 3, 1875: Bizet’s Carmen Premieres in Paris[4770]
[c]Theater;Mar. 3, 1875: Bizet’s Carmen Premieres in Paris[4770]
[c]Music;Mar. 3, 1875: Bizet’s Carmen Premieres in Paris[4770]
Meilhac, Henri
Halévy, Ludovic
Guiraud, Ernest
Hammerstein, Oscar, II

The story of Carmen traces its roots to 1830, when French author Prosper Mérimée—traveling through the Andalusia region of Spain—first heard a tale about a gypsy girl who was killed by a jealous lover. This story developed into the novella Carmen (1845). In the novella, the soldier José Navarro falls in love with the headstrong gypsy Carmen and follows her into a life of crime and murder after he deserts his regiment. When she does not remain faithful to him, he kills her. Before his execution, he tells his story to the narrator, a historian touring Spain.

In 1873, when Bizet had the opportunity to work with two of the leading librettists in France, Henri Meilhac Meilhac, Henri and Ludovic Halévy Halévy, Ludovic , he suggested they adapt Mérimée’s novella. Meilhac and Halévy changed many aspects of Mérimée’s work, adding characters and eliminating scenes to enhance its dramatic impact. Bizet was much more involved in the crafting of the text than were many opera composers, taking advantage of his previous experience composing Les Pêcheurs de perles (1863; the pearl fishers), La Jolie Fille de Perth (1867; the fair maid of Perth), and Djamileh (1872).

Belgian opera signer Marguerita Sylva (1876-1957) as Carmen.

(Library of Congress)

The directors of the Opéra-Comique, the theater where Carmen was to be staged, were not pleased with the choice of subject matter, rightly sensing that the unconventional story populated with thieves, gypsies, and the climactic murder of Carmen by her lover, Don José, would be scandalous to the French public. Additional revisions to the opera were made during rehearsals against Bizet’s wishes, some at the insistence of the theater directors.

The opera is in four acts and adds two characters that barely appear in Mérimée’s novella. Don José’s former girlfriend, Micaela, becomes a moral foil that accentuates the immorality of Carmen, while Carmen’s next conquest, the bullfighter Escamillo, embodies the virtues that José turns away from in his obsession with Carmen. Perhaps the most dramatic change from the novella is that José’s last confrontation with Carmen before he kills her takes place outside a bullring instead of on a remote mountainside. The cheers of the crowd inside for Escamillo’s victory render Carmen’s death even more tragic. Bizet’s music brings the characters to life for the audience, as in Carmen’s first aria, which is accompanied by the seductive rhythms of the Habañera, a slow Cuban dance.

While the audience applauded act 1 of Carmen at its premiere on March 3, 1875, they became more cool and almost hostile by the end of the production. Newspaper reviews of the performance were overwhelmingly critical. The Mérimée story was considered too obscene for the stage, and Bizet’s music was said to lack drama and original melodies, although a few reviews praised the music in specific scenes. Bizet himself considered the opera to be a failure, although it was performed forty-seven more times at the Opéra-Comique, albeit with fewer people in the audience over the course of its run.

Bizet did not live to see the eventual success of Carmen. He succumbed to heart failure exactly three months after the opera’s premiere, on June 3, 1875. The score of the opera was still incomplete when Bizet died, with the various revisions made during the first production not yet consolidated. As a result, different versions of Carmen exist, and many subsequent productions have been quite different from Bizet’s original conception of the work.

The Paris version of Carmen employed spoken dialogue between Bizet’s aria and ensemble numbers, but for the production in Vienna in October of 1875, sung dialogue, or recitative, was added in order to conform to the tradition of grand opera. The new recitatives were composed by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud. Guiraud, Ernest It was primarily this version of the opera that was published and that most productions since have followed. The Vienna production also added ballet Ballet music from a previous Bizet opera, a parade of bullfighters, and even men on horseback. The success of Carmen in Vienna was followed by a production in Brussels, Belgium, and the opera was soon performed across Europe and the United States. An 1883 revival in Paris finally brought Carmen critical praise in the French press. Later performances during the nineteenth century were often sung in the vernacular, with productions in Spanish, English, Italian, and Czech.


The success of Carmen can be attributed to at least three factors. The first is the compelling, psychologically realistic characterization of Carmen herself. She is a strong woman, comfortable using her sexual appeal to get what she wants and determined to preserve her freedom, leading her to reject the possessive Don José. She stays true to her beliefs, even when faced with death at the hands of her jealous lover. The exotic setting of southern Spain also appeals to audiences, with colorful costumes and characters and the mystery that the opera associates with gypsy culture. The third factor in Carmen’s success is in the compelling music of Bizet, who adapted folk melodies and Spanish dance rhythms to compose his original music, which is both lively and sensuous.

Even though Carmen was not immediately successful during its first performances, it soon entered into the repertoires of opera companies around the world, and it became one of the most popular operas of the twentieth century. Many productions translated the original French libretto into other languages, including Croatian, Chinese, Hebrew, and Japanese.

The popularity of the story has also inspired many non-operatic versions of Carmen. Oscar Hammerstein II Hammerstein, Oscar, II retained Bizet’s music but adapted the story into a Broadway musical called Carmen Jones
Carmen Jones (film) (1943) set in a World War II parachute factory with an African American cast; a film version directed by Otto Preminger was released in 1954. Other film versions of Carmen, some with little or none of Bizet’s music, have appeared in France, Italy, Spain, England, Russia, and the United States. One film employs Bizet’s music but is sung and spoken in the South African language of Xhosa. These adaptations are examples of the global appeal of Bizet’s engaging musical score and of the timeless characters that were first introduced on the Paris opera stage in 1875.

Further Reading

  • Baker, Even. “The Scene Designs for the First Performances of Bizet’s Carmen.” Nineteenth-Century Music 13, no. 3 (Spring, 1990): 230-242. Provides illustrations of the likely stage sets employed in the first production of Carmen.
  • Curtiss, Mina Kirstein. Bizet and His World. New York: Vienna House, 1974. A comprehensive and well-documented biography that provides context for the music of Bizet through firsthand accounts from letters and other original documents.
  • Dean, Winton. Georges Bizet: His Life and Work. 3d ed. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1975. A thorough recounting of Bizet’s biography and discussion of his music with many musical examples for illustration.
  • Gould, Evlyn. The Fate of Carmen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. A complex reading of three versions of Carmen: Mérimée’s novella, Bizet’s opera, and the film of Carlos Saura; aimed at an academic audience.
  • Lowe, David A. “Pushkin and Carmen.” Nineteenth-Century Music 20, no. 1 (Summer, 1996): 72-76. A compelling argument that the libretto for the opera Carmen was influenced by the Aleksander Pushkin poem The Gypsies in addition to Mérimée’s novella.
  • McClary, Susan. Georges Bizet: Carmen. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A detailed analysis of the work that offers insights into issues of gender, race, and class in the opera and also later film versions.

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Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Georges Bizet. Carmen (Bizet)
Bizet, Georges
Mérimée, Prosper