Bizet: Carmen

Georges Bizet (1838-1875): Brief Biography
Montmartre, Paris

Bizet was born of musical parents, and lived his entire life in the legendary artistic area of Montmartre, in Paris. He attended the Paris Conservatoire (the principal training ground for gifted French performers and composers then, as now) 1848-56, to study piano and composition.

In the course of his studies, he was taught by two important opera composers: Charles Gounod (whose opera Faust is still a favorite in opera houses today), and Fromental Halévy (one of the founders of French grand opera, whose daughter Bizet eventually married).
Fromental Halévy
Halévy soon recommended him to the Opéra-Comique (the opera house for which he was later to write two operas, one of them Carmen), and he probably gained practical operatic experience from helping out at rehearsals there.

Bizet won the most highly sought-after prize in composition at the Conservatoire, the "Rome Prize," in 1856, and spent three gloriously happy years (1857-60) in Italy at the expense of the government, during which time he wrote his first opera, in the Italian opera buffa style.

Pearl Fishers: production (1999)
(click to see full-size)

Soon after his return to Paris, his first opera of any significance was performed in Paris: The Pearl Fishers (1863) was praised by Berlioz but disparaged by most other critics. Set in Ceylon, this work reveals some of the exotic musical characteristics that were to be so important 10 years later in Carmen. His only public success in opera was his The Pretty Maid of Perth (1867), which earned praise from the newspaper critics.

Ernest Guiraud

Finally, after further unsuccessful stage works, illness and professional discouragement, Bizet proposed Mérimée's novella Carmen to the Opéra-Comique in 1873 as an operatic subject. It was controversial (see Libretto), but he persevered, and it was effectively performed (1875), but to a shocked and scandalized audience, and fairly hostile critical reception.

Bizet, beset by depression, fell ill, and died three months after the première (June 3). Carmen was staged in Vienna shortly after his death, in the Summer of 1875, with the spoken dialogue set to recitative by Ernest Guiraud. This production was a triumph, leading the way to performances in London, New York, and other cities, and to Carmen's establishment in the permanent repertory of every major opera house.