As world premieres go, opening night for Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera “Carmen” at the Opéra-Comique in Paris was far from triumphant.
The opera’s subject matter was certainly scandalous — Carmen, a sexually liberated 19th-century gypsy woman, rejects her obsessive lover Don José, who eventually murders her in a fit of jealousy. But Bizet was confident this delicate material could be handled with care, forging a successful musical drama. “I know what I am doing,” he said, with great confidence, as he started the composition.
At the premiere, however, Bizet found the reception disappointingly muted, the audience’s initial enthusiasm all but evaporating by curtain call. Only a handful of Bizet’s closest colleagues lingered backstage to offer support and reassurance after the show.
And the critics? Some were sympathetic, but many were openly vitriolic. The opera, one wrote, depicted “the sewers of society,” and Carmen herself was a “veritable prostitute of the gutter and the street corner.”
Bizet died three months later at age 36, believing his final opera to be a failure.
Little did he know history would perform a radical redemption, making “Carmen” one of the world’s best-loved operas. The 2017-18 season alone racked up more than 3,500 performances globally, second only to Verdi’s tear-jerking “La Traviata.” Recent years saw a slew of “Carmen” productions by local companies including Minnesota Opera (2015), Skylark Opera Theatre (2017), Brainerd’s ascendant Lakes Area Music Festival (2017) and St. Paul Ballet (2018). And now Mill City Summer Opera offers another iteration, opening this week in the dramatic Ruins Courtyard at Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis.
So how did this remarkable volte-face happen? How did this 1875 flop become a 21st-century blockbuster, one of the most popular operas of the modern era? We brought the question to artists working on the Mill City production.
Sexy social misfits
Much of the answer can be found in Bizet’s colorful and surprisingly melodic music — as full of hummable melodies as any Broadway show, and just as listener-friendly.
“It’s the best musical ever written,” said mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock. “It’s got hit tune after hit tune,” with as many familiar strains as “West Side Story.”
The star of Mill City Summer Opera’s production, Babcock has performed the title role in “Carmen” more than 150 times. She has sung the role in Nashville, New York City and Anchorage. After all these productions, she’s still fascinated by the character’s raw, unbridled sexuality.
“Carmen’s sexuality is not a delicate flower, to be deflowered by men,” said the Los Angeles-based singer. “That’s why the opera was panned when it came out, because it shocked bourgeois audiences.”
With the evolution in sexual mores in the 140-plus years since the opera’s premiere, Carmen is now seen as a symbol of free expression, Babcock added. Audiences love watching the character battle sexism and other social constraints. “I think everybody likes to see someone — especially a minority — standing up for themselves,” Babcock said.
As for opera veteran Fenlon Lamb, the Kansas City-based director of Mill City’s production, she likes that the opera’s cast of characters isn’t recruited from the usual world of gods, myths and fairy tales. “ ‘Carmen’ is arguably about people we’re not supposed to like, people on the edge of society,” Lamb said of Bizet’s gypsies, racketeers and criminals.
With their bohemian lifestyle, these social outsiders are especially appealing in the 21st century, an era of faceless bureaucracies and corporate muscle-flexing. Today’s audiences are pulled toward the “freedom these characters represent,” Lamb said.
Sure, there’s a certain lurid fascination — like watching a trashy soap opera — in seeing the opera’s two principal characters hurtle toward disaster. “We feel the danger in this opera from the get-go, the danger Carmen is constantly pushing and poking at,” Lamb said. She likened the viewing experience to gawking at a train wreck. “We can’t help ourselves.”
There’s also a hint of hopefulness in the opera, at least initially. The beautiful “Flower Song” aria, sung by Don José in the second act, suggests the intoxication of a young love affair.
But the story’s dark contours quickly come into focus. “It’s the age-old story of ‘you’re not listening to me,’ ” Babcock said. “Carmen tells everybody who she is and what her M.O. is — ‘You can’t cage me; you can’t tell me what to do.’ Then Don José comes into her life, and he says, ‘I want this other thing from you; you’re going to give it to me.’ He’s projecting this image of the woman he wants.”
Carmen’s refusal to submit to a conventional relationship eventually unhinges Don José, with fatal consequences. The opera’s gory conclusion is awash not just in the blood of a defiant Carmen — stabbed by her crazed ex-lover — but with uncomfortable sexual symbolism. “How does he kill her?” Lamb said. “With a knife. He penetrates her.”
With the world talking openly about #MeToo and raging over gender inequality, some directors can no longer stomach that gruesome final scene. A recent production at the storied Maggio Musicale theater in Florence, Italy, altered Bizet’s original ending by having Carmen shoot Don José with a pistol. The scene was revised to protest Italy’s problem with domestic violence and femicide. “At a time when our society is having to confront the murder of women, how can we dare to applaud the killing of a woman?” said Cristiano Chiarot, head of the opera house, in an interview with Reuters.
Lamb sympathizes with the gesture. But she doesn’t intend to repeat it this week in Minneapolis.
“I don’t mean to sound regressive, or like I don’t support different outcomes for women,” she said. But the tragic denouement of “Carmen” is thought-provoking enough. “I don’t think the opera loses its power by keeping with what happens in the libretto,” she said. “I would like to be faithful to Bizet’s storytelling.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.