Arguably one of the most famous operas of all time, Carmen has been no stranger to pop culture since its creation in 1875. The musical themes of Carmen have been buzzing in our ears for years in a host of different mediums.
You’ve probably heard the “Habanera” before, like when the Swedish Chef and Beaker sang it on The Muppets, or when it was a lullaby on Sesame Street. It was even featured in a Doritos commercial, and famously heard in in the classic Disney/Pixar film, UP. Carmen is everywhere!
The 1954 Academy Award-nominated American musical film Carmen Jones was set to the music of Bizet’s Carmen and featured an all-Black cast starring Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, and Harry Belafonte. Though Dandridge and Belfonte were known singers, film producers elected to hire a white opera singer to dub the vocals for Dandridge.
Set during World War II, Carmen Jones works in a parachute factory and seduces Corporal Joe (Don José), a handsome Army guard who succumbs to Carmen’s advances after arresting her. Much like Bizet’s opera, Carmen eventually leaves Joe for a champion prizefighter, Husky Joe. Carmen meets the same unfortunate fate in this retelling, strangled to death after rebuffing the advances of her previous lover.
In 2001, Carmen hit television screens in Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Produced by MTV, the film stars Beyoncé Knowles in her debut acting role. This time an aspiring actress, Carmen gets involved with Sgt. Derek Hill (Don José). The plot is similar to Bizet’s opera– though devastated by Carmen leaving him for famous rapper “Blaze” (Escamillo), Carmen’s ultimate death isn’t at the hands of Hill but a corrupt ex-cop in search of him. Hill is wrongfully arrested, and the film ends with a rap, “Immortal Beloved… Carmen Brown, there’ll never be another”. Though the film received critique, this “Hip Hopera” was the first of its kind and paved the way for other rap-oriented works (think Lin Manuel-Miranda or Kanye West).
Social Media and Beyond
Today, Carmen is as popular as ever. From music to memes, Carmen is here to stay!
Carmen can be heard in pop music, such as in Stromae’s song “Carmen” that samples “Habanera”.
Carmen even makes an appearance in the cult favorite horror game, Five Nights at Freddy’s. That’s right, a creepy music box rendition of “Toreador March” can be heard as the theme for Freddy Fazbear!
The Freddy Fazbear theme and many other Carmen inspired audio clips have been taken to a whole new level with the creative memes and trends of TikTok. Take for instance this bizarre rendition of “Toreador March” from the video game Stupid Invaders. This seemingly random audio was used millions of times in creative ways on the platform!
Carmen has stood the test of time, but why is it so popular? The fearless and flirtatious title character has much to do with it. Notorious for her sexual charisma, Carmen has agency and lives a care-free life as she wishes to. A feminist icon to many, Carmen carries on as a pop culture icon.
More works to check out
- Black Opera by Dr. Naomi André
- Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough by James Baldwin
- Carmen on Ice
- First Name: Carmen
- Carmen (1983 film) by Carlos Saura