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Things You Don’t Know about Bizet’s “Carmen”

Updated on April 15, 2013

Everyone knows at least some of the music from Bizet’s Carmen. Everyone knows the Habenera and the Chanson du Toréador, as well as the instantly recognizable Prelude to Act I. Would anyone believe that this, the most famous opera in the world and arguably one of the greatest compositions of all time almost didn’t survive opening night? Did you known Bizet died three months after the premiere and thought he had wasted both his talent and his life? Did you know Carmen was left unfinished at the time of his death and had to be completed by a friend?


Carmen, the gypsy heroine, was the creation of novelist Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870). The inspiration for his novel came from a supposedly true story told by socialite Manuela, Countess of Montijo. Carmen is Mérimée’s masterwork, but has also to some extent been his doom: The operatic version has left both the novel and its author entirely in the shadows.

Georges Bizet was commissioned by Paris’ Opéra-Comique during the early 1870s to write the opera. There were concerns from the beginning about the story’s sexual content; but the managers nonetheless gave him the green light. Bizet began writing the music during the early part of 1873.

Watercolor by Prosper Mérimée for his novel Carmen
Watercolor by Prosper Mérimée for his novel Carmen | Source

The writing of Carmen was an absolute nightmare. Bizet was constantly interrupted as the managers continued to get cold feet over the risqué story and demanded changes to the libretto. Bizet himself eventually started meddling in the text, but then had to rewrite several large parts of the score when the orchestra claimed it was un-performable. There was also a dispute as far as the casting of the titular role. Bizet and the managers argued over several divas before settling on a relatively unknown mezzo called Célestine Galli-Marié. She proved to be the one and only good decision any of them made.

Carmen’s premiere on March 3, 1875 was one of the biggest flops of all time. The audience was almost completely unresponsive. The critics were disgusted by the sexuality of the story and wrote reviews panning everything except Galli-Marié’s singing. Attendance eventually dropped so low the managers considered closing after only four performances. The initial run ended with the tickets actually being given away.

Portrait of Célestine Galli-Marié as Carmen by Henri Lucien Doucet
Portrait of Célestine Galli-Marié as Carmen by Henri Lucien Doucet | Source


Carmen is about Don José, a young man trying to make his way honestly through life. Both his career in the army and his childhood romance with Micaëla are destroyed the day he meets Carmen, a seductive gypsy women. José’s downfall starts when Carmen convinces him to help her break out of jail and later traps him into joining her band of smugglers. Despite his conscience, José puts up with it all, provided Carmen at least appears to still be in love with him. Carmen puts up a surprisingly convincing front – until Escamillo, a famous bullfighter, enters their lives. José and the Toreador nearly kill each other; but Carmen puts an end to it all by running off with latter.

José briefly forgets about Carmen when Micaëla takes him to see his dying mother. But lo and behold, he shows up at Escamillo’s next bullfight. José confronts Carmen and, when she refuses to run away with him again, stabs her. The opera ends with him admitting to the crime and declaring he still loves Carmen.

Did you know…?

  • The opera managers were concerned not only with the sexual content in Carmen but also by the fact that the opera ends with the heroine being knifed onstage by her lover. The Opéra-Comique was a popular trysting place and, even though few love stories end with perfect happiness, it was unthinkable to present a story that ends with such violence. This concern didn’t end up mattering very much: the premiere audience was so unenthusiastic about the work that by the end most had either already left or fallen asleep.
  • The character Micaëla does not appear in the original novel in any way, shape, or form. She was force-fed on the librettists by the managers of the Opéra-Comique who felt they needed a “good girl” to counter Carmen’s seediness. This led to another problem because:
  • Charles Gounod attended the premiere and claimed that Micaëla’s now famous Je dis Que Rien ne M'epouvante had been plagiarized. He probably just overreacted because his accusation has never been proved and the aria has since been considered one of Bizet’s finest works.

  • Célestine Galli-Marié predicted Bizet’s death: Towards the end of Act III, Carmen sings what is known in English as the Card Song. In it, Carmen tells her fortune and realizes her inevitable demise. While singing this during a performance on June 2, 1875, Galli-Marié suddenly realized that Bizet himself must be dying. Although she suffered a nervous collapse backstage it is unlikely anyone took her seriously. Imagine their surprise when they found out the next morning that Bizet had died of a heart attack during the night. The date of his death (June 3, 1875) being exactly three months after the disastrous premiere of Carmen and the fact that he was only 36 years old are enough to give anyone the shivers. The evening’s planned performance of his final work was cancelled, not so much out of respect for the misunderstood composer, but because Célestine Galli-Marié was in no condition to perform.
  • It is unclear whether or not Carmen was left in a condition Bizet would have been satisfied with. There is a surprising amount of dialogue in the work, partly because Bizet was ran out of time during the composition and partly because he was trying to be innovative. Whatever the reason, it was decided that the dialogue needed to go.
  • After Bizet’s death, his friend and fellow composer Ernest Guiraud replaced the dialogue in Carmen with the more traditional recitatives. He also reworked some of Bizet’s songs to create a much needed ballet for Act II (an omission which was disastrous to all 19th century French operas). Guiraud made these changes in anticipation of Carmen’s tour in Vienna. Bizet had been very much counting on the tour and most likely had planned these changes himself. Either way, Guiraud’s work ultimately led to:

The Triumph

Carmen premiered in Vienna on October 23, 1875 and was a complete triumph. Bizet, as often happens with dead composers, was hailed as a genius. The audience and critics overlooked the morally decayed story and were swept away by the melodic majesty of the music. Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and even Wagner declared the opera was one of the finest works in the repertoire.

The French, however, still had some reservations. Carmen did not return to Bizet’s homeland until 1883. The Opéra-Comique wanted to give the work another try, but there were still enough people who remembered the offense caused by the premiere. However, up to this point Carmen had been successful not only in Vienna but also in England, Italy, Spain, America, and even as far away as Russia. The management realized they basically had no choice. They revived Bizet’s 1875 production and brought back some of the original cast including Célestine Galli-Marié. Carmen has since been treasured as the finest French opera ever written.

1984 movie production with Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes


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