Galli-Marié, the original Carmen.
She is the very bad girl we have come to despise and mourn. And was there ever such a handsome putz as Don José? Carmen and her soldier suitor have mesmerized us since she first danced across a Paris stage singing of L’amour.
On March 3, 1875 the Opéra-Comique of Paris premiered Gorges Bizet’s opera Carmen. It was not a happy experience for either the company or the composer. The audience was indifferent. Critics were uniformly hostile to the depiction of low life degradation. Although it managed to run for 48 performances, the company was giving away tickets at the end to fill the seats.
Of course some may claim that everybody’s favorite Gyspy temptress is older than 138 years. She did first appear in a pot-boiler novella by Prosper Mérimée in 1845. The story he told had some of the elements of the later opera, but diverged from in in several ways. In many ways despite the title, it was more about dragoon turned brigand. The book was not a huge literary success, but found an audience among thrill seekers. Bizet must have been one of them because he read it while he was studying in Rome around 1858-60. When he received a commission from the Opéra-Comique for a new full length the old story sprang to mind.
The commission came none-to-soon. Bizet’s once promising career was stalled. One after another his opera projects were either rejected or mounted to indifferent success.
It had not always been so. He was born in Paris on October 25, 1830 to a musical family. His father was a former wig maker turned singing teacher and his mother came from a family of accomplished musicians and played several instruments. Georges show astonishing aptitude from an early age and entered the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 10. He was quickly the star student, winning medals and admiration. He became an accomplished, even virtuoso, pianist, but avoided concert performances because he wanted to be a composer.
At the age of 17 in 1857 Bizet won the prestigious—and valuable Prix de Rome which subsidized his studies for the next five years in exchange for the submission of annual envois—original compositions. He studied in Rome in from 1858 to 1860 where he composed Don Procopio to an Italian libretto as an Opera Buffa—a short comic opera with spoken dialog separating the musical numbers. It was accepted with praise by the Conservatoire as the first of his envois. But it could find no company to produce it and did not see the stage until 1905, long after the composer’s death.
During this period he started and discarded several opera projects.
He was next supposed to spend a year in Germany, but that was cut short by the illness of his mother. He returned to Paris and peddled several more ideas for opera while composing other short work to satisfy the Conservatoire. The income from the prize allowed him to live comfortable, and carouse in the best tradition of young artists.
But when his income ended after 5 years, Bizet discovered the downside of being a starving artist. He had to make ends meet teaching piano, transcribing music, and arranging for other composers. In 1863 he did finally have his first production in Paris—Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) at the relatively experimental Théâtre Lyrique. It was not a success. Panned by the critics and ignored by the audiences. It ran for only 18 performances. It was thereafter seldom performed until the 20th Century when it entered the repertoire of several important companies around the world.
He struggled unsuccessfully for years to finish and find a production home for an opera based on the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible, but eventually abandoned that project as he had others before it.
In 1867 the Théâtre Lyrique mounted his new opera, La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth). This time the reception was better and critics enthusiastic. But the theater was, as always, in financial difficulty and had to close production after another 18 performance run.
His career was bouncing around. He attracted notice, but not productions. In the midst of these efforts to establish himself, he married Geneviève Halévy, the daughter of a late former mentor. He composed a cantata and a hymn which failed to win any medals at the 1867 Paris exposition universelle d’art et d’industrie. But he did finish several piano pieces and the symphony Roma, which premiered in 1869 to good reviews. Boyed by that success, he began work on two other operas.
War, however, intervened. Bizet patriotically enlisted in the National Guard during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The war, to put it mildly, went badly for the French. After the Army was nearly destroyed at Sedan Louis Napoleon was captured and deposed. The new Third Republic which Bizet initially greeted with enthusiasm, elected to try to continue the war. Paris was besieged. Bizet and his wife remained in the city and shared the hardships and starvation, then he humiliation of Prussian occupation. The couple fled the city during the upheaval of the Paris Commune and its brutal suppression. As a suspected sympathizer, he would probably have been among the tens of thousands executed by the government in the aftermath had he stayed.
He returned when it was safe. As the city tried to resume a normal life, Bizet tried to pedal several opera ideas before he was first commissioned by the Opéra-Comique. His idea for Carmen was reluctantly accepted and he began work with librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Some of the Directors of the theater objected to the immoral story and unvirtuous heroine. When it looked like yet another project would fail to get off the ground, Bizet agreed to create and submit Don Rodrigue, an adaptation of the El Cid legend instead. But that hope ended when the theater burned to the ground on October 23, 1873.
The following summer, the director most opposed to Carmen resigned and the original project was back. The directors, although still pleading to have major changes made in the name of decency, signed the leading mezzo-soprano of the day, Célestine Galli-Marié, to sing the lead. She may also have been, briefly, Bizet’s lover. Certainly she was his biggest ally and used all of diva to help keep the production from going off the rails while a new theater building was being built.
And there were a lot of challenges. The musicians complained that the score was too complex. The chorus was unused to acting as well as just standing around—they were expected to stroll around the stage, smoke, interact with one another, dance, and even fist fight. The nervous directors demanded that portions of the script be expunged and the libretto toned down. Galli-Marié and the other principle singers threatened to withdraw of the changes were made. With a substantial investment already in the production and a new house to fill, the directors gave in.
When it opened the critics hated it. The bourgeoisie were offended. The production only stayed afloat on the star power of Galli-Marié, the curiosity of sensation seekers, and the enthusiasm of the city’s bohemians, who mostly depended on those free passes to see the show.
Disheartened and exhausted Bizet retreated to the country. He was in significant pain from lesions in his esophagus—more than likely cancer caused by years of heavy smoking. On June 3, 1875 he suffered his second heart attack in two days and died at age 36, literally of a broken heart.
In Paris where Carmen was still in production, Galli-Marié collapsed and could not go on.
For a supposed failure, Bizet attracted a lot of support in death. 4,000 attended his funeral at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Montmartre. That night a special memorial performance of Carmen was performed. The same critics who had savaged it four months earlier now declared it a work of genius.
Genius or not neither the Opéra-Comique nor any other Paris company dared add the opera to its regular repertoire.
In October a Viennese company produced the show to wild acclaim and it became a staple of the international repertoire. But Opéra-Comique, once burned, did not dare to restage the production until 1883.
The tale of the Gypsy temptress, the wayward soldier, the matador, doomed love, and vengeance has lived on to be one of the most produced operas in the world and one of those that even opera haters know and love. Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, and Agnes Baltsa have been memorable as Carmen and Plácido Domingo and José Carreras notable as Don José.
And as Dancing With the Stars proves season after season, the music has become familiar to even those who never heard of the opera.