Think of French opera, and thanks to Gaston LeRoux and later Andrew Lloyd Webber, one immediately thinks of the Paris opera house that was known simply as the Opéra, the home of the French Grand Opera. Featuring huge, elaborate sets and costumes and including lengthy ballet numbers, these works are rarely performed today. The Opéra was so tied to the conventions of grand opera, in fact, that works of foreign composers had to be revised, and not merely translated, for the Paris stage. Among other things, there was a mandatory ballet. Some of Verdi’s operas, for example, exist in two different versions, and it is the Italian versions which are generally performed today.
Parisians, however, had a number of alternatives. There were numerous venues for operetta, where works of Jacques Offenbach and his musical offspring held sway, and there was a Theatre Italienne (for the performance of Italian opera). For a while there was the Théâtre Lyrique, where more intimate musical dramas could be staged, though this house was out of business by the time Carmen was composed. More important than these, however, was the Opéra-Comique, where Carmen had its premiere.
The label “Comique” is actually misleading, since in French the words comedie and comique do not necessarily have the same connotation as their English equivalents. Rather, they refer to drama in general, signifying the greater emphasis on story as opposed to the spectacle of the Opéra. Whereas works performed at the Opéra consisted of continuous music, the Comique interspersed spoken dialogue between musical scenes. (At one point, this distinction was written into the government charters of the two theatres.) In some ways, these operas could be compared to the German singspiel, such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio or The Magic Flute. Carmen, with its relative lack of spectacle and its focus on members of the lower economic classes, was definitely not material for the Opéra. Incidentally, when Carmen was first performed outside of France, after Bizet’s death, recitatives composed by Ernest Guirard were added to bring it into conformity with what non-Parisian audiences regarded as opera. It is only in recent years that opera companies have begun to perform the work as Bizet intended.