Carmen, like so many stories that serve as inspiration, has a rich and varied history. The story of the sultry gypsy who entrances a straight-laced Spanish army officer and leads him astray only to throw him over began life rather innocuously as a novella, published in 1845, by French author Prosper Mérimée. Fast-forward nearly thirty years to 1873, when French composer Georges Bizet accepted a commission to compose a score based on Mérimée’s novella that would eventually become the world-famous opera, Carmen. Except, it very nearly wasn’t world famous at all. During its initial March, 1875 run at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, critics denounced it, causing the producers to nearly pull it after its fourth or fifth performance. Even though it was ultimately allowed to continue playing, towards the end of its run, the theatre was giving tickets away in a desperate attempt to boost attendance. However, in October of that same year, the opera was staged in Vienna where it bowed to both critical and popular acclaim.
Sadly, Bizet would never know of his opera’s success, having succumbed in June of that year to a heart attack at the age of thirty-six.
The story that librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy created from Mérimée’s novella exists to this day as the framework from which most subsequent interpretations have taken their inspiration. In short, disciplined army officer Don José finds himself intrigued and ultimately seduced by the sultry, dangerous gypsy, Carmen. He casts aside a childhood sweetheart and his career army aspirations for love of Carmen, following her into a life of crime, believing her to be as devoted to him as he is to her, a belief that is shattered when he discovers that she’s taken up with the dashing matador, Escamillo. In a fit of jealousy, Don Jose stabs Carmen—as she dies, he kneels over her body, despairing.
Yeah… not exactly uplifting, is it? But trés dramatic. And everyone loves a good drama as evidenced by its many interpretations over the years,
from the ballet (as referenced in Stars) to the nearly forty different film adaptations, including the 1954 classic, Carmen Jones, with its revolutionary all-black cast and earning Dorothy Dandridge an Academy Award Best Actress nomination, the first for an African-American woman.
Then there’s the music. That glorious, glorious score that Bizet created. I always tell people even if they don’t know the story of Carmen, they’ve heard at least a snippet of music. Even NPR agrees, stating, “Carmen may have more hit tunes than any opera ever composed. People who say they’ve never listened to a note of opera in their lives have probably heard something from Carmen, even if it was only in an elevator.” And those of us of a certain age almost certainly first heard some of the music as the theme to the film The Bad News Bears (the original 1976 version, that is). “The March of the Toreador” became so irrevocably associated with the film, it was for a good while more commonly referred to as “The Bad News Bears song.” Or it’s possible those who are fans of Jim Henson’s Muppet Show might have encountered the iconic “Habañera” as interpreted by… The Swedish Chef. And Beaker. With a cameo from Animal.
Or if you happen to be an individual of yet another certain age, you might also recognize snippets of “Habañera” as having been mashed up in the Arthur’s Almost Live Not Real Music Festival episode of the PBS animated series based on the children’s books by author Marc Brown.
Beyond that, the music has been heard in various other venues. For example, many figure skaters (one of my other passions) have used the music for programs, perhaps never more famously than in the much-vaunted “Battle of the Carmens” at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Two world champions, American Debi Thomas and East German Katarina Witt, the athlete and the artist, both going head to head portraying Carmen. The biggest difference between the two would be that Debi Thomas’ Carmen would remain “alive” at the end of the program while Witt would take the more traditional route of portraying her death. Ironically, it would be the Carmen who died who prevailed on that night in Calgary.
And of course, marching bands and drum corps throughout the years have used the music as a basis for their competitive programs. In fact, the Madison Scouts Drum & Bugle Corps, an all-male corps based out of Madison, Wisconsin used the score in 2005 and for only the second time in their history, invited a female to perform with the corps—to portray Carmen on the field. No, I had no idea when I wrote my version of the story, but it does feel all lovely and circle of life (sorry… different musical).
Whether you’ve heard it in an elevator or during halftime or while watching the Olympics or even in a symphonic hall, the music from Carmen endures, representative of a story that will hopefully continue to inspire artists, whatever their medium for a long time to come. Stars is but another little piece of that mosaic.