Carmen Themes - San Francisco Opera
Georges Bizetʼs opera, Carmen, based on a 1845 novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée, premiered at
the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875. Set in Seville and its surrounds in about 1820, Carmen centers
around a new kind of protagonist, a female anti-hero who all men desire. The action revolves around Carmen,
the fiery gypsy, and todayʼs audiences still fall under her spell. Like the leading lady, Carmen is filled with
passion, and a lust for life. Upon the operaʼs premiere, Carmen stirred tremendous controversy, and critics
decried the operaʼs sensational depiction of violence and sexuality in life and death. Today, the passion,
violence and well-loved melodies lure people again and again to theatres all over the world. Carmen has
become one of Operaʼs most beloved tragedies with characters and melodies that are still referenced and
used to great effect in popular culture today.
Sexuality, Morality and Power
The heroine depicted in operas of the time was typically innocent, faithful, a victim of fate. In Carmen, that sort
of woman is fated to lose their man, should he ever come in contact with Carmen. Carmen is operaʼs first “bad
girl” heroine, and there is nothing innocent or demure about her. She uses her feminine wiles to attract and
mesmerize all men and does with them as she pleases. Carmen is a powerful woman who is able to take on
the toughest of men and win. When she finds that Don José, the young corporal of the dragoons, is indifferent
to her advances, the game is on. Carmenʼs domination of this man-of-honor is complete. She turns on the
heat, and Don José loses all sense of himself as he is consumed by his obsessive love. He abandons both his
sweetheart Micaëla and his life as a soldier to follow Carmen and her band of gypsy smugglers.
For 1820 audiences, gypsies were considered to be restless and wild creatures of passion, seemingly without
civility and morals. Bizetʼs depiction of the gypsy life added exoticism to the story through his musical
characterization of Carmen as seductress. Carmen, willful and fierce, answers only to herself and she declares
her thoughts without concern for others.
Lʼamour est enfant de Bohême,
Il nʼa jamais jamais connu de loi.
Si tou ne mʼaimes pas, je tʼaime.
Si je tʼaime, prends garde à toi!
Love is a gypsy's child,
it has never, ever, known a law;
love me not, then I love you;
if I love you, you'd best beware!
The librettoʼs portrayal of Carmen flirts with the audienceʼs stereotypic beliefs and expectations of the gypsy as
a deviant outsider. While her friends are dealt tarot cards that predict love and wealth, Carmenʼs cards foretell
of a violent death. The future is clear. Carmenʼs immoral behavior demands her punishment. It is in the cards.
La carte impitoyable
Répétera : la mort!
Encor! Encor! Toujours la mort!
Encore! De désespoir!
Toujours la mort!
The pitiless card
Again : death!
Again! Again! Always death!
Don Jose serves Carmenʼs needs for a while, but it isnʼt long before she is attracted to another man. It is
fitting that Escamillo the toreador commands Carmenʼs attention, for he is her equal. Escamillo is
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA Education Materials CARMEN Themes
accustomed to being the center of attention and no woman can resist his attentions. He is also a man
who bravely faces death each time he steps into bullring. As a bullfighter, he is accustomed to a life of
blood, violence and death.
Don José learns that Carmen has been unfaithful to him and that he has been replaced. He cannot
compete with Carmenʼs new love, and he is filled with a jealous rage. He challenges Escamillo to a knifefight, and the toreador expertly handles Don José. Escamillo spares Don José, and adds to the soldierʼs
indignity by refusing to harm him, adding that he kills bulls, not men.
It is soon discovered that Don Joséʼs betrothed, the loyal Micäela has come to ask José to return with her
to see his mother. When he refuses to go, she reveals that his mother is dying. Filled with a rush of
emotions for his dear mother, he agrees to go, but he vows to return to Carmen.
Une parole encore, ce sera la dernière.
Hélas! José, ta mère se meurt,
et ta mère ne voudrait pas mourir
sans t'avoir pardonné.
One word more, it will be the last.
Alas! Jose, your mother is dying,
and your mother would not like to die
without having forgiven you.
As Don José departs, Carmen hears singing in the distance, and she instinctively rushes to follow him,
only to have her way blocked ominously by Don José.
Carmen refuses to be intimidated by Don José. The gypsy has given her heart to another. Her declaration of
love foreshadows her fate, “Ah! I love you, Escamillo, I love you, and may I die, if I have ever loved anyone as
much as you!”
When Don José threatens her with physical violence, she stands firm and without fear. She knows that her
death is pre-destined, and still she refuses to bend to an increasingly desperate Don José.
Non! je sais bien que c'est l'heure,
je sais bien que tu me tueras;
mais que je vive ou que je meure,
non, non, non! je ne te céderai pas!
No, I know well that it is the hour,
I know well, that you will kill me;
but whether I live or whether I die,
no, no, no! I will not give in to you!!
Don José is desperate to hold on to Carmen, even as she is determined to leave him for Escamillo. Outside
the stadium, she declares her impassioned love for the bullfighter, as the crowd chants, “Toréador, en garde!”
Jamais Carmen ne cédera!
Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!
Never will Carmen give in!
Free she was born and free she will die!
José pleads with her and tells her that he has lost everything, including his soul, for her. She refuses to go with
him, and he stabs her in a blind rage. Inside the stadium, the crowd celebrates the victorious toreador who
entertained with bloodsport, as Don José throws himself over Carmenʼs lifeless body. The spurned lover
would sooner keep her in death, than to see her belong to another.
Vous pouvez m'arrêter -c'est moi qui l'ai tuée!
Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!
You can arrest me – it is I who has killed her!
Ah, Carmen! Carmen, my adored one!
In the end, Carmen, the free spirited gypsy would rather die than live to serve the will of another. Carmenʼs
insistence on freedom commands respect for Bizetʼs unique heroine, "free, independent and mistress of all her
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA Education Materials CARMEN Themes