September marks the start of the new opera season.

(Soundbite of opera, "Carmen")

SIMON: Again, the perennial favorite, "Carmen" by Georges Bizet will take the stage at opera houses in New York and Vienna. "Carmen" owes its longevity, in part, to Bizet's sparkling music, and certainly to the fearless, flirtatious title character. But for all of her sexual charisma, Carmen's own fate, in Bizet's opera, says something about how we may view strong women.

NPR's Tom Huizenga reports.

TOM HUIZENGA: She smokes and drinks, runs with a band of smugglers and brings men to their knees just by crooning a breathy habanera. She's Carmen, the supreme diva of operatic femmes fatales. And when it comes to seduction, there's nothing more steamy than this.

(Soundbite of opera, "Carmen")

Ms. DENYCE GRAVES (Opera Singer): (As Carmen) (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HUIZENGA: Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame. That's the type of carefree mantra Carmen lives by. Within minutes, she'll have a hapless soldier named Don Jose half-crazed with desire. 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 freethinking, blazingly real woman, who works in a sweaty cigar factory.

Professor SUSAN McCLARY (Musicology, University of California, Los Angeles): We see her rolling up these cigars on her bare thigh. This opera is so loaded with sexual imagery; it's not to be believed. And none of that kind of explicit sexuality had been on the operatic stage at all. And to have this woman who smokes, who does exactly what she pleases, just blew everybody's mind.

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

Mr. WILL BERGER (Author): "Carmen" hit the world stages in the very height of the Victorian era, and it really spoke to people. And there was something about casting aside of conventions and all those niceties that we are 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.

(Soundbite of opera, "Carmen")

Ms. GRAVES: (As Carmen) (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HUIZENGA: And right up through today, Carmen's brand of in-your-face honesty and sexy confidence continuous to appeal to audiences and those lucky enough to sing the role.

(Soundbite of opera, "Carmen")

Ms. GRAVES: (As Carmen) (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

I'm Denyce Graves and I have sung the role of Carmen a gazillion times in all of the major opera houses in the world.

HUIZENGA: Graves says she's actually learned much about being a woman just by playing Carmen.

Ms. GRAVES: I'm a great admirer of this woman. I have drawn a lot of strength from who she is. I wish I were more like her, in fact. She doesn't care. She really lives honestly, and that's very attractive, I think.

HUIZENGA: 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, stabs her to death, and the curtain comes down.

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

Ms. McCLARY: She stands for everything that can potentially go wrong with women. 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.

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

Ms. GRAVES: No, I don't think she's being punished. I think it's even an act of will on her part. And she says to him, you know, if you're going to 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, so she does it for him. I think it's extremely powerful.

(Soundbite of opera, "Carmen")

Ms. GRAVES: (As Carmen) (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HUIZENGA: Carmen, in the face of death, is fearless. Will Berger says, her naturally sexy life force is at a level which, even today, can be uncomfortable for many.

Mr. BERGER: I don't know of too many women who are as compelling and commanding as Carmen. I think if we saw an archetype as well drawn as Carmen, it would never get on television. People would not like it. It would be a little too disturbing.

HUIZENGA: Depending on how you look at it, Carmen is disturbing or delightful, a figure to be emulated or 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 and into our everyday lives.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

Soundbite of opera, "Carmen")

Ms. GRAVES: (As Carmen) (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: You can see more of the point here. Callas sing Carmen and other great interpreters of the role at our Web site,

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