Carmen on the Couch: Analyzing Bizet's Bold Heroine

Conchita Supervia

Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia thrilled audiences in Paris and London with her portrayal of Carmen in the 1930s. The Metropolitan Opera Archives hide caption

itoggle caption The Metropolitan Opera Archives

Talking Carmen

Hear experts and artists discuss aspects of Carmen.

Author William Berger

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves

Musicologist Susan McClary

Tenor Richard Leech

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Carmen i i

Denyce Graves as Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Metropolitan Opera Archives hide caption

itoggle caption Metropolitan Opera Archives
Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Carmen

Denyce Graves as Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Metropolitan Opera Archives

September marks the start of the new opera season. Again the perennial favorite, "Carmen," by Georges Bizet, will take the stage at opera houses in places like New York, London and Vienna.

Carmen owes its longevity, in part, to Bizet's sparkling music, and to its fearless, flirtatious title character. But for all her sexual charisma, Carmen's own fate, in Bizet's opera, says something about how society views strong women.

Carmen is the supreme diva of operatic femmes fatales. She smokes and drinks, runs with a band of smugglers and brings men to their knees just by crooning her breathy Habanera (audio).

In her famous aria, Carmen sings, "Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame..." It's the type of carefree mantra she lives by. Within minutes, she'll have a hapless soldier named Don Jose half-crazed with desire.

Sexual Symbols

Bizet's Carmen premiered in Paris in 1875, at an opera house accustomed to staging family-friendly dramas. Musicologist Susan McClary says those first Paris audiences were not exactly ready for a free-thinking, blazingly real woman, who works in a sweaty cigar factory.

"This opera is so loaded with sexual imagery, it's not to be believed," McClary says. "We see her rolling up these cigars on her bare thigh. And none of that kind of explicit sexuality had been on the operatic stage at all. And to have this woman who smokes and does exactly what she pleases just blew everybody's mind."

Carmen might have blown a few minds, but author Will Berger says that, oddly enough, she also pushed just the right buttons.

"Carmen hit the world stages at the very height of the Victorian era, and it really spoke to people," Berger says. "There was something about casting aside of conventions and all those niceties that we're supposed to have in civilized life. And there was something very appealing about a woman who just said, 'Here I am, I am woman, hear me roar." (audio)

Right up through today, Carmen's brand of in-your-face honesty and sexy confidence continues to appeal to audiences and those lucky enough to sing the role, such as mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who says she's learned much about being a woman in the process.

Role Models

"I'm a great admirer of this woman," Graves says. "I have drawn a lot of strength from who she is. I wish I could be more like her. She doesn't care. She really lives honestly, and that's attractive, I think."

But "attractive" may just be in the eye of the beholder. In the opera, Don Jose is attracted to Carmen, but after she seduces him, then dumps him for a bullfighter, he goes off his head and stabs her to death, and the curtain comes down.

So why does Carmen have to die? McClary says it's because Carmen is a hero to some, most notably feminists. But to others, Carmen is a threat.

"She stands for everything that can potentially go wrong with women," McClary says. "And just as we expect to see Dracula killed off at the end of a vampire movie, we expect to see this monstrous woman killed off."

McClary also says that, still, very few women characters who have power get to keep it. Like Carmen, they all must be punished in the end. But for Graves, Carmen's death means just the opposite.

"No, I don't think she's being punished," Graves says. "I think it's even an act of will on her part. And she says to him, 'If you're gonna kill me, kill me. Otherwise, get the heck out of my way.' But I've played her many times that she actually runs on to the blade itself, that she feels that he doesn't have the courage to do it himself, so she does it for him. I think it's extremely powerful."

Carmen, in the face of death, is fearless. According to Berger, her naturally sexy life-force is at a level which, even today, can be uncomfortable for many.

"I don't know of too many women who are as commanding and compelling as Carmen," Berger says. "I think if we saw an archetype as well drawn as Carmen, it would never get on television. People would not like it; it's just a little too disturbing.

Depending on the audience's perspective, Carmen is disturbing or delightful, a figure to be emulated and held up as a cautionary tale. She was a character far ahead of her time in 1875, and today, her story vibrantly spills out of the opera house, into our everyday lives.

Purchase Featured Items

Bizet's Carmen

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Bizet's Carmen
Artist
Maria Callas
Label
EMI
Released
1997

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Bizet's Carmen

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Bizet's Carmen
Artist
Teresa Berganza
Label
Deutsche Grammophon
Released
2005

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Bizet's Carmen

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Bizet's Carmen
Artist
Angela Gheorghiu
Label
EMI
Released
2003

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Bizet's Carmen

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Bizet's Carmen
Artist
Leontyne Price
Label
RCA
Released
1998

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Carmen: A Hip Hopera

Purchase Movie

Purchase Featured Movie

Title
Carmen: A Hip Hopera
Director
Beyonce

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

U-Carmen (set in South Africa)

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
U-Carmen (set in South Africa)
Artist
Mark Dornford-May
Label
Koch Lorber
Released
2007

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Carmen Jones

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Carmen Jones
Artist
Otto Preminger
Label
20th Century Fox
Released
2002

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.