As has been the case with most musical geniuses, George Bizet’s musical gifts were discovered at an early age. Born into a Parisian musical family October 25, 1838, he found himself enrolled in the Conservatoire, Paris’ leading school of music, at age nine. At age fourteen, he began his studies with the man who was to be his most influential teacher, the renowned opera composer Fromental Halevy, who is best remembered today for his opera La Juive. Several years after Halevy’s death, Bizet’s life was to intersect with Halevy’s family in two significant ways: Bizet’s marriage to his teacher’s daughter, and his collaboration with Halevy’s nephew Ludovic on Carmen.
In other countries, the great composers were dispersed throughout the country; however, French opera, like French culture, was concentrated in Paris. As such, Bizet had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of several of France’s leading composers, including Charles Gounod, composer of Faust and Roméo et Juliette, who was to have a major influence on Bizet’s music. He also had the opportunity to interact with the Italian expatriate Rossini, and he later established a friendship with Jules Massenet.
In 1857 Bizet won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which afforded him the opportunity to study in Italy for three years. It was at this time that the chronic throat ailment that eventually took his life first manifested itself. Upon his return to France he immersed himself in composing, but much of it was menial work, such as preparing transcriptions of other people’s music. A couple of his pre-Carmen operas are occasionally performed today: La Jolie Fille de Perth, based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, and The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles), best remembered for the first-act duet “Au fond du temple saint,” considered by many to be the greatest tenor-baritone duet ever penned. The Pearl Fishers is still performed on occasion, but for the most part many people still consider Bizet to be a one-hit wonder.
In 1873, Bizet began work on Carmen for the Opéra-Comique. He was excited about the prospect of working with one of the most successful libretto-writing teams of his day, Meilhac and Halevy (he had collaborated with the latter previously on one of his early works). While Camille de Locle, one of the directors of the Comique, was an enthusiastic supporter, his co-director, Adolphe de Leuven, was appalled, and his reported dialogue with Halevy could itself be the basis for a comic opera: “Carmen? Isn’t she killed by her lover – and that background of thieves, gypsies, cigarmakers! At the Opéra-Comique, a family theater.” Halevy assured him that there would be several familiar character types, such as in innocent young woman and comic gypsy types. And the death scene would be “sneaked in at the end of a very lively, very brilliant act, played in bright sunlight on a holiday with triumphal processions, ballets, and joyous fanfares.” Nevertheless, de Leuven (who eventually was to leave the Comique due to his displeasure with this opera) reiterated, “Don’t make her die. I beg of you, child, don’t.”
(This may seem comical now, but about sixty-five years ago Rodgers and Hammerstein encountered similar resistance when they had a character die near the end of Oklahoma!; remember, at that time Broadway musicals were still called “musical comedies.”)
As mentioned earlier, opening night was a disaster, as the critics were unable to appreciate Bizet’s original approach to dramatic narrative. While Carmen was to enjoy a moderate run in Paris, Bizet’s various ailments soon got the best of him, and he died May 30, 1875, never to realize even a hint of the vast popularity he was to receive posthumously.