An Operatic Blockbuster: Bizet's 'Carmen' With its sensational story, graphic violence and overt sensuality, Bizet's Carmen proves that opera goers are drawn to the same elements that make for pop culture hits at the movies, and on television.

An Operatic Blockbuster: Bizet's 'Carmen'

From Houston Grand Opera

An Audio Introduction to 'Carmen'

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The biggest hit from Carmen is also one of the most familiar tunes in any opera: the "Habanera" in Act One. In this recording it's sung by one of today's hottest Carmens, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

Carmen's 'Habanera'

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The B Side

The character of Don Jose doesn't fare all that well in Bizet's opera, but he is given one of its best numbers — the second act aria known as the "Flower Song." This recording is by tenor Richard Tucker.

'Flower Song'

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Beatrice Uria-Monzon and Marcus Haddock star as Carmen and Don Jose, from Houston Grand Opera. Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opear hide caption

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Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opear

Generally, opera isn't tossed into the vast pot of entertainment that's loosely defined as "popular" culture. But if there's one opera that does fit the pop culture bill, surely it's Georges Bizet's blockbuster, Carmen.

For one thing, Carmen may have more hit tunes than any opera ever composed. Even people who say they've never listened to a note of opera in their lives have probably heard something from Carmen, even if it was only in an elevator.

As for the opera's story, it showcases any number of elements that don't exactly mesh with opera's typical, highbrow image — proving that opera goers are attracted by the same guilty pleasures that draw people to sensational TV shows, or lurid films.

Carmen herself, for example, easily falls into the same, femme fatale tradition that includes the murderous characters played by Sharon Stone and Glenn Close in the movies Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Early audiences were scandalized by Carmen's overt sexuality and her violent death, but they went to the opera anyway — in droves.

The opera's devotees also seem to ignore its unflattering and oversimplified portrayal of the Roma people, sometimes known as gypsies, just as fans of mafia stories put up with the stereotypes they often reinforce.

The popularity of Carmen was even helped by a real life tragedy, just as movies such as The Dark Knight and The Crow developed a special fascination for some after the unexpected deaths of their stars, Heath Ledger and Brandon Lee. At a point when the long-term success of Carmen was still an open question, Bizet suddenly died. His admirers mourned, but lines at the ticket office promptly got longer — and the opera has been a hit ever since.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Carmen from Houston Grand Opera, featuring a stunning performance by Beatrice Uria-Monzon in the title role.

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The Story of Carmen

Police hold back the crowds as Carmen (Beatrice Uria-Monzon) makes her grand entrance. Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

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After tiring of Don Jose, Carmen (Beatrice Uria-Monzon) cozies up to the toreador Escamillo (Raymond Aceto) outside the bullring. Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

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Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera


  • Beatrice Uria-Monzon ...... Carmen
  • Marcus Haddock .......... Don Jose
  • Jessica Jones ................. Micaela
  • Raymond Aceto .......... Escamillo
  • Ryan McKinny ................. Zuniga
  • Heidi Stober ............... Frasquita
  • Fiona Murphy ............. Mercedes
  • Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Sebastian Lang-Lessing, conductor

As ACT ONE begins, soldiers have gathered outside a cigarette factory in Seville, waiting for the factory girls to appear. A young woman named Micaela is looking for a soldier named Don Jose, but he hasn't arrived yet, and Micaela leaves. When Jose does show up, he's with his superior officer, lieutenant Zuniga.

Soon, women emerge from the factory for their break. One of them is Carmen, who makes a grand entrance with a flower in her teeth and sings her famous "Habanera." She flirts boldly with Jose, throwing the flower at his feet. When the women go back to work, he picks it up and keeps it.

Micaela then comes back. She's a teenaged orphan who has been raised by Jose's mother, and she has a message for him from home. His mother thinks Micaela would make Jose a good wife, and she may be right — he does seem attracted to her.

They're interrupted by a commotion at the factory. Carmen has started a fight with a co-worker, stabbing her in the process. Zuniga orders Jose to take Carmen into custody. But when the two are left alone, Carmen turns on the charm, and Jose can't resist her. Instead of taking her to jail, he helps her to escape.

ACT TWO begins some time later, in a tavern. Carmen is there with two of her friends, Mercedes and Frasquita. They're drinking with some soldiers, including Jose's lieutenant, Zuniga. Carmen finds out that Jose has been arrested for letting her go, and has spent a month in jail. The soldiers leave, and two other men arrive. They're criminals who want Carmen and her friends to go with them on a smuggling trip. Mercedes and Frasquita agree, but Carmen says she's in love, and wants to stay behind.

There's a commotion as the famous bullfighter Escamillo enters. He's immediately taken with Carmen, but she turns him down, thinking of Jose and saying she already has a man in her life.

Jose himself then arrives, and Carmen celebrates his return. She decides she'll go with the smugglers after all, and invites Jose to come along. He's tempted, but eventually says he can't do it. This angers Carmen, and even Jose's beautiful "Flower Song" doesn't soothe her.

But their standoff is put aside when Zuniga returns. He's also got an eye for Carmen and was hoping to find her alone, so he abruptly orders Jose to leave. Jose refuses, and instead attacks him. Jose gets the best of the struggle. But, having assaulted his superior officer, Jose knows he can't stick around, so he takes off with Carmen and the smugglers.

In the smuggler's camp, as ACT THREE begins, everyone sings about the dangers of their profession. Some of them read cards to tell their fortunes. For Carmen, the cards have bad news. They predict that she and Don Jose will both die.

When the smugglers leave, Don Jose stays behind on guard. Micaela suddenly appears in the shadows. When a nervous Don Jose fires a shot into the darkness, she hides.

Then there's another visitor — the bullfighter Escamillo. He says there's a rumor that Carmen is looking for a new lover, and figures he'll apply for the job. Jose charges at him, and there's a fight. Escamillo gets the upper hand, but decides to let Jose go. Jose goes after Escamillo again and as he's about to kill the toreador, Carmen returns and stops him, saving Escamillo's life. Escamillo leaves, but as he's going, he invites Carmen to his next bullfight.

Micaela comes out of hiding and says Jose's mother wants him to come home. Jose is determined to stay with Carmen, even though she makes it clear that she's getting tired of him. Micaela then admits that Jose's mother is dying. Jose makes threatening remarks to Carmen, and leaves with Micaela.

ACT FOUR takes place outside the bullfight arena in Seville. Escamillo arrives in a grand procession — and Carmen is with him. When the toreador goes into the arena to prepare, Carmen stays outside with her friend Frasquita. It seems that Jose is somewhere in the crowd. Frasquita is afraid Jose might try to hurt Carmen, but Carmen isn't worried and decides to confront Jose.

He begs her to leave with him, but she says she no longer loves him; she's with Escamillo now. As she starts to enter the bullring, Jose tries to stop her. She defies him by taking off his ring, and throwing it at his feet. Jose draws a knife, and stabs Carmen to death.

Just then, a roar comes from the arena, and Escamillo emerges in triumph. Don Jose is standing over Carmen's body, bloody knife in hand. He gives himself up to the police as the opera ends.