Carmen on the Couch: Analyzing Bizet's Bold Heroine She smokes and drinks and brings men to their knees just by crooning a breathy Habanera. She's Carmen, the supreme diva of operatic femmes fatales, the controversial heroine of Bizet's popular opera.
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Carmen on the Couch: Analyzing Bizet's Bold Heroine

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Carmen on the Couch: Analyzing Bizet's Bold Heroine

Carmen on the Couch: Analyzing Bizet's Bold Heroine

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

September marks the start of a new opera season.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "CARMEN")

SIMON: 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")

SIMON: (As Carmen) (Singing in French)

HUIZENGA: 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.

P: 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.

SIMON: "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")

SIMON: (As Carmen) (Singing in French)

HUIZENGA: And 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CARMEN")

SIMON: I'm Denyce Graves and I have sung the role of Carmen a gajillion 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.

SIMON: 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: 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.

SIMON: 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.

SIMON: 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")

SIMON: (As Carmen) (Singing in French)

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.

SIMON: 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: Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "CARMEN")

SIMON: (As Carmen) (Singing in French)

SIMON: You can see - more to the point, hear - Callas sing Carmen and other great interpreters of the role at our Web site, npr.org.

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