Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Almost Instant Classic

Sometimes the public gets it right. Not always, of course. Tell people of your love of opera, and sooner or later someone will respond by praising the talents of Charlotte Church and Josh Groban (Renée who? Luciano who?). Or they may tell you that they are opera fans because they own a Three Tenors CD or once attended a high school production of H.M.S. Pinafore.

But then there’s Carmen, which not only has become one of the two or three most popular operas of all time (one link of the “ABC’s of opera”: Aida, La bohème, and Carmen) but actually deserves to be there. This popularity is especially remarkable in view of the hatchet job the critics tried to perform at the opera’s opening.

Romantic legend tells us that the initial failure of Carmen caused Bizet to die of a broken heart. This is, of course, an exaggeration. Bizet suffered from chronic illnesses throughout much of his life, and his death three months after the premiere of Carmen was not completely unexpected. On the other hand, his depression over the opera’s lack of success could have contributed to his declining health.

Given the fact that so many of this opera’s melodies have become part of our popular culture (The Bad News Bears is just one example), it is hard to realize how radical and innovative Carmen really was at the time. Audiences were not used to seeing tragic heroes and heroines who came from the lower economic classes, and a tragic story featuring a female factory worker was virtually unheard of. Beyond this, audiences were not prepared for Bizet’s radical innovations in the use of melody, which looked forward to the verismo era (we will say more of this later).

Though the French public reaction to Carmen was at best lukewarm, many of the leading composers of the day understood Bizet’s unique genius. Among them were Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Wagner, who appreciated the fact that Bizet was a man with ideas about music.

What the French did not appreciate, the Austrians did. The Viennese production, which followed soon after the Paris premiere, was an unqualified success, and this great dramatic work has never been out of the repertoire since.

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