The Carmen Wordsmiths
Though Prosper Merimee (1803-1970) was a fairly successful novelist and playwright, he is best remembered today for his short story Carmen, which was the source of Bizet’s opera of the same name. He frequently set his stories in exotic settings, while distancing himself from his subject matter with a sense of ironic detachment. The narrator of Carmen, for example, exhibits attitudes toward gypsies which today we would probably brand as racist. A number of his plays were adapted for the operatic stage, but even in their own day these operas met with little success and they remain only a footnote in the history of opera, though one of his stories indirectly influenced Verdi’s La forza del destino.
On the other hand, the libretto for Bizet’s opera was written by a team that enjoyed considerable success in writing for the musical stage: Henri Meilhac (1831-1897) and Ludovic Halevy (1834-1908), the latter being the cousin of Bizet’s wife. Historians credit Meilhac with the greater wit and Halevy with the greater command of stagecraft. Besides this opera, which was hardly typical of their work, they are principally remembered for their collaborations with Jacques Offenbach, most notably on Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène, and The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. They were largely responsible for the development of the opéra comique as a unique art form distinct from French grand opera.