Bizet: Carmen

Exoticism in Carmen

One of the most striking features of Carmen -- a feature that contributed to the opera's initial failure in 1875 and that, in a complete aesthetic reversal, is largely responsible for its immense popularity today -- is the work's "exotic" setting and musical language.

Regnault: Salome
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Europeans in the 19th century, in addition to being increasingly able to travel to faraway lands (this was the age of rail and steam, of the first package holidays and, much more negatively, of colonialism), were becoming ever more captivated by the idea of the world beyond Western Europe as a place of fantasy, mystery, even danger and sexual licence. In France, novelists like Gustave Flaubert and painters such as Henri Regnault and Jean-Léon Gérôme captured this spirit in countless evocations of non-Western characters and locales. An especially popular image was that of the Middle Eastern woman, with her veils, jewels, bronzed beauty and alluring dancing.

Gérôme: Dance of the Almeh
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Exoticism -- as this trend in the arts is now known -- inevitably made its way into the operatic domain, where it encouraged the creation of colorful sets and costumes, and inspired composers to use color musically, to depict the characters on stage and to inflect the way those characters expressed themselves. Although Bizet was one of the most parochial composers of his day (apart from a brief trip to Rome in 1857-60, he barely ventured beyond Paris during his short life), he was one of the most important when it came to creating operatic exoticism.

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Three of Bizet's four principal operas take place in non-Western European locales: The Pearl Fishers (1863) tells of two men's love for the same chaste Hindu priestess in Sri Lanka; Djamileh (1872) unfolds in the palace of an Egyptian prince; and Carmen takes place in southern Spain, a region deeply influenced by Middle Eastern culture. (Bizet's fourth opera, The Pretty Maid of Perth (1867), is set in the rather chillier location of Scotland.) What makes Carmen distinctive is that exoticism in the opera functions on two levels: the action takes place in Spain, but most of the work unfolds in the even more foreign world of the gypsies (see Gypsies). Not only that, but these Spanish and gypsy realms are a good deal more gritty and down-to-earth than the dreamy Eastern settings Bizet had conjured up in his previous operas (see Realism).

Manet: Dead Toreador
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As in the original Mérimée novella (and in Edouard Manet's pre-Impressionist paintings--see the Met Museum exhibition), Spain for Bizet both is
Manet: Lola de Valence
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brightly colorful and has a dark and dangerous side, a combination the composer exploits in particular in the opera's final scene, in the contrast between the bright choral music emanating from the bullfight and Carmen's and Don José's last, desperate dialogue. Carmen herself spends much of the opera not expressing her feelings (as a typical opéra comique heroine might), but singing and dancing for those on stage, with music distinguished by its strong, pulsating rhythms and seductively sinuous melodies (see especially Carmen's three "gypsy" numbers, the Habañera and Seguidilla in Act I and the Act II "Chanson bohême" ("Gypsy Song")).

At the time, such exotic musical coloring was seen as suggestive of the female body and of sex, and Bizet's heroine was dismissed as a "prostitute of the gutter," a "wild animal," and a "cynical harlot" (see Critical Reception). Today, accustomed as we are to the rhythms and complex harmonies of modern classical as well as popular and world musics, Carmen's music is no longer shocking but rather, with its memorable rhythms and tunes, provides an entry-point for many into the world of classical music.

Karen Henson