Welcome to my first opera post! As my favorite thing in the world, opera is going to get plenty of attention from me on Mind Vitamins. Some posts, like this one, will introduce plot and history. Others will talk about the music, characters or story quality and also introduce the reader to some of the greatest singers and recordings of operas, both modern and vintage. I will be making recommendations on recordings that you can either buy or listen to on Youtube for free, so you can confidently start on the road to operatic classiness!
For my first opera post, I’ve decided to back to my beginning: Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Now, to be completely truthful, La Boheme was my real operatic beginning, but Carmen was the first recording I ever owned myself. This little gem, which I giddily received for Christmas at age 13, opened wide the floodgates to a whole universe of diverse musical beauty… and also to a whole universe of people rolling their eyes at me. Oh well.
Carmen is one of the most well known and frequently performed operas of all time. Even if you have never willingly submitted yourself to any operatic experience, you probably know at least one tune in it by heart. Snippets from the Habanera and Toreador Song are heard frequently in television and film. In the tradition of French Opera, it’s impossible to call any moment of this work unpleasant, as the fiery and exotic music vividly illustrates the story’s violence, jealousy, love, hatred, and betrayal.
The drama centers around Don José, a corporal in the Spanish military. He meets Carmen, a wickedly beautiful and independent gypsy girl who seduces the naive José , only to cast him lightly aside when she tires of him and his boring soldier’s ways. But José is not so changing, and his violent and jealous nature prove to be the doom of the fatally ill-matched couple. But even with the great plot and music, there is usually icing on this operatic cake in the form of dancing, sword fights and fabulous costumes.
The history of the opera is a bit sad. The composer, Georges Bizet, worked tirelessly for month after month on his beloved Carmen. He knew it would be his masterpiece and legacy. But when the devoted artist finally premiered his work in 1875, it was utterly rejected by the public. Disgusted by the onstage violence and scandalized by Carmen’s voluptuous character, the people of Paris deemed the opera vulgar and uninspired. Bizet’s greatest work was a box office bomb. Rumor had it that tickets to the performances were being given away in a desperate last-ditch effort to produce popularity.
In the middle of this dismal fiasco, poor Bizet suddenly died. Worn out by struggle with illness, overwork on his recent project, and some like to say a crushed heart and soul, Bizet had a fatal heart attack at only 36 years old.
All those people who had insulted him in the gazettes must have felt pretty darn sheepish as they now had to inform the world of his premature death. Paris was appalled. Faced with the fact that this talented man would never compose again, and probably affected with a kind of Dead Artist Fever, the fickle public apparently rethought its stance on Carmen and gave it a another chance. It was performed very successfully, and when it was finally brought to America in 1884, it became little less than a smash hit. It surged to the top of nearly every country’s most performed list and has remained there ever since.
And so, Carmen became immortal and its music has been beloved by opera fans and haters alike for over a century. Nowadays, many of the Opera Hipsters (yes, there are Opera Hipsters) like to pooh pooh Carmen because of its popularity and admitted overuse. But by doing so, they really do injustice an opera with beautifully crafted music, lyrics and storyline that deserves a spot with some of the greatest operas as well as the most fun.
(If you would like to listen to Carmen, I would recommend this ravishing recording with Agnes Baltsa and José Carreras. If you would like to watch Carmen, this is a thoroughly decent version, although all of the really excellent video recordings of this opera have to be bought. I’ll talk about the best video recordings another time!)