- Songs From Carmen Jones
- Carmen Musical Black And White
- Carmen Musical Film
- Carmen Musical Piece
- Carmen Musical Period
- Carmen Musical Plot
The story of Carmen originates in the short novella written by Prosper Mérimée. In this case, Bizet’s opera Carmen, libretto written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, is an adaptation of the original just as Carmen Jones is a different version written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Robert Russell Bennett. Adaptations are increasingly popular in this day and age as most films shown in the cinema are remakes, as many Broadway shows have been previously performed in past decades, and as many music pieces are covered by amateur artists on the internet. Such adaptations like the ones mentioned above receive great criticism from fans of the original. A revival or new spin on an old idea always adds something, but similarly, always leaves something out. In the comparison of Bizet’s Carmen and Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, there are many things that are a let down while there are some things that are more accessible to a modern-day audience, especially in an American setting. Let us explore some of these differences and come up with an overall conclusion – which version is the most effective?
The simplest thing to compare first is the setting of the play, and which setting is most conducive to the idea of Carmen the heroine. Bizet and librettists set the opera in early nineteenth century Seville, Spain (though the Metropolitan version that the classsaw took place during the Spanish Civil War). Carmen is a gypsy woman working in a tobacco factory. The idea of her being a gypsy brings a lot of allure to her character, for gypsies are often mysterious, mischievous, and mystical. By setting the opera in a European country, the audience also assumes certain cultural values of the characters. Let us now compare this setting with the American setting of Hammerstein’s play. He sets the play in an African American World War II military base in the United States. All of the characters are, taking from the setting, African American as well. This homogeneity in the character base leads to less distinction between all ranks. In this time of American history, African Americans were still not given the rights, or respect that many white men were given, and hence all of the characters seem to be on a level playing field when compared to the outside world of the segregated military base. There seems to be no reason, in meeting Carmen Jones, why she might be any more alluring than the other girls. One reason for this may be the fact that all of the characters are ordinary African American citizens in the United States rather than nomadic gypsies with a mysterious persona. Similarly, the costumes employed for the character of Carmen differ greatly. The opera heroine wears seductive “gypsy-costume,” where as the musical’s protagonist is dressed in ordinary garb of the day.
Listen to music from Carmen like Friends With Benefits, Time to Move & more. Find the latest tracks, albums, and images from Carmen. Carmen, as created by Bizet, has become the stereotypical Spanish woman of the 19th century in the popular imagination. She’s hedonistic, impetuous, hot-tempered and cold-hearted. She’s lovestruck and a femme fatale at the same time. It’s ironic, then, that this quintessential Spanish woman was created by a Frenchman.
Next, lets consider the plot of the two similar performances and debate; which is stronger? Ultimately, when adapting a play from another form, there is often a lot of compromise. In trying to get the plot of Carmen Jones similar to that of Carmen, Hammerstein has to do a lot of forcing. Not all of the story line comes as naturally as the original opera. Let’s take the example of the third corner of famous love triangle: Escamillo (or in the case of Carmen Jones, Husky). In Spanish tradition and culture, bullfighters, toreros, matadors, or whatever you might call them, are given a high regard and are grand celebrities. They exhibit the power of man over nature as they ultimately kill not one, but two bulls by the end of the night. Compared to this heroic image, reminiscent of Roman tournaments, is the image of an African American boxer, Husky. Though the idea of a fighter is still there, Husky is nowhere near the symbol of a bullfighter. The goal at the end of a boxing match is not to kill the opponent, but merely to punch him to the floor. Even in pure image, the boxer cannot compete with the lavish costume of a toreador. For this reason, the plot line is weakened in Carmen Jones. Why does Carmen ultimately decide to go with this third corner of the triangle? Yes, both Husky and Escamillo have money, as they are celebrities. But the focus on Husky is more monetary than the focus on Escamillo which is more passion, and power based – more symbolic, just as his character. Such passion and power is also exemplified later on when Don Jose stabs Carmen outside of the bullfight. In the musical, Joe simply strangles her. Though both are horrific ways to die, there is a certain shock and awe that a stabbing brings upon an audience as opposed to a strangling.
An inexperienced theatregoer and music lover might not pick up a strong difference in the music of both opera and musical, but to someone who knows, Hammerstein’s version is close to an abomination. Bizet wrote his music for a specific libretto and for a specific setting. Though French, he puts a Spanish-gypsy flare into his orchestration to fit the setting of his opera. I am all for rewriting songs for the purpose of parody or “spoof,” but when it’s done in what I believe was a serious attempt at a musical, I have a problem. Hammerstein attempts to include the correct songs in the “correct” places in his adaptation, but he changes the lyrics so drastically that he cannot hope to get a similar message across. At some points, it seems, he includes a song just for the purpose of saying to the audience, “don’t worry, I included it!” Such an example is the song “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum,” to the melody of Bizet’s “Gypsy Song” in the opera. There was absolutely nothing gained in this performance, and all that it accomplished was tarnishing a Carmen-lover’s listening to Bizet’s original. And can anyone explain why Carmen Jones might nonchalantly be whistling themes from Bizet’s opera? Had she just gone to see a performance on the army base? It was overkill including such reminders that this was, in fact, a rendition.
All of this being considered, though, there are some strengths in Hammerstein’s version in the sense that it can be viewed as more accessible to a modern-day audience that isn’t quite accustomed to sitting in a foreign-language opera. Perhaps a novice theatregoer who sees this rendition might be inspired to make the next step and go to the opera. The musical definitely follows the cliché idea of musical theatre being a “hokey” outing. But, anything that inspires more appreciation in the arts is a welcome addition to theatre repertoire.
Ultimately, after an entire essay comparing the two versions of Carmen, both adaptations in their own right, it may be concluded that though Hammerstein’s version is obviously inferior in both story line and orchestration, it is simply yet another version of a famous opera that does no harm to the art world. Overall, it is necessary for new adaptations. Artists of all types have new ideas to add to the old, and we should welcome their fresh outlook.
Marina B. Nebro
The fictional character of Carmen – the heroine of Bizet’s opera – attracts a range of labels which variously position her as seductress, femme fatale, sex addict, fate/ death obsessed, victim, liberated woman and even feminist.
These descriptors have been circulating since the opera’s premiere in Paris in 1875. From its initial underwhelming success, Bizet’s Carmen has become one of the world’s most popular and frequently performed operas. Opera Australia’s production of Carmen, based on the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Norwegian National Opera co-production, opens in Melbourne tomorrow night.
Carmen is often simply understood as a story about a doomed love affair. But there is a little more to it than that …
A battle of the sexes
The story of Carmen has two central characters. Don José, a soldier from the country, and Carmen, an exotic gypsy woman working in a cigarette factory. Carmen has been causing trouble in the factory and, to avoid being imprisoned she seduces Don José, who has been ordered to arrest her, and escapes. He falls in love with her. She leads him astray.
She is responsible for the break-up between Don José and his fiancée, Micaëla, the antithesis of Carmen, and prompts him to leave the army to join her and her band of smugglers. But Carmen becomes bored with Don José and finds the bullfighter Escamillo to take his place. Don José then murders Carmen in a fit of jealousy.
The opera is based on the novella Carmen (1845) by Prosper Mérimée and the subject matter in the original story, which is necessarily simplified for the opera, represents a number of fantasies involving race, class and gender that were circulating in 19th-century French culture.
In the opening chapter to American musicologist Susan McClary’s book, Georges Bizet: Carmen, language professor Peter Robinson makes the point that the real battle in Carmen is between the sexes. From the very beginning the woman is marked as the enemy. The battlefield is Carmen’s body and the story raises questions about who shall own her body while describing those who are fighting over it.
Robinson suggests there are two exotic anecdotes threaded into the story. The first deals with the notion of the “uncivilised”. Accordingly, Carmen, the gypsy girl, and the nomad smugglers are portrayed as violent, disorderly, superstitious and diabolical.
The second anecdote is concerned with order, rationality and logic. These characteristics are represented by Don José. He epitomises the hallmarks of French civilisation. These elements, which compose the structure of the story, are linked to control and mastery.
Throughout the story, Carmen is associated with the colour red. Red is the life-force itself. But when it spills outside the body, it is the colour of death.
Songs From Carmen Jones
In Opera; or the Undoing of Women, French feminist writer Catherine Clément similarly attributes Carmen’s death to the oppression of women by men. Carmen must die because she refuses to acquiesce to the desires of Don José.
Carmen is sometimes seen as the female equivalent of the Don Giovanni character in Mozart’s opera of the same name. In his book, A Song of Love and Death, Australian literary scholar Peter Conrad says that both characters are impelled to remain eternally in motion, pursuing, in Don Giovanni’s case, and manoeuvring free, in Carmen’s. They can only be truly satiated in death. Carmen seeks to keep all men in the world from knowing her. She is portrayed as mysterious, unpredictable, perpetually contradictory and elusive.
It’s all in the music
The vitality of Carmen is evoked by clever musical techniques. Carmen’s music is sexy and exotic and is, as McClary writes:
grounded in pseudo gypsy dance forms that are referred to by their dance type designations: Habañera (a Cuban genre from Havana) and Seguidilla (a dance from Southern Spain, possibly of Moorish origin).
McClary’s analysis, paraphrased here, shows how music is able to powerfully conjure the essence of the characters. It also intensifies the themes of the sexual, racial, and exotic in the opera.
Carmen’s rhythms set her body in perpetual motion. They are contagious and seductive, drawing attention to her body and arousing desire. Before she begins to sing the first note of her famous Habañera, the instrumental pattern – di-da-da-daa, di-da-da-daa – is already engaging her body, setting her hips in motion.
Her melody, which begins after the short instrumental introduction, sounds as if it is slipping in-between the cracks of the notes. It is excessively chromatic – a chromatic scale ascends and descends through all the 12 semitones of the octave and is less stable than a major or minor scale which is based on 8 notes of the octave – and slippery, descending seductively by half steps. It taunts and teases. It draws attention to the erogenous zones. But the music also alternately coaxes and frustrates. It lingers on notes that have a strong gravitational urge to move onward.
In Feminine Endings, McClary writes that Carmen:
plays with our expectations not only by lingering but also by reciting in irregular triplets that strain against the beat.
This helps to create the allure of her exotic, sexy character and to portray her as proficient in the art of seduction. Carmen’s music refuses to be contained. It is used to mercilessly manipulate Don José, who is obsessed with her.
By giving Carmen unpredictable, disordered music, she is portrayed as the opposite of Don José. According to McClary, Don José’s story organises the narrative and his fate hangs in the balance between the Good Woman (his fiancée) and the Bad Woman (Carmen). His music is no less invested in the libido than Carmen’s but it is marked to contrast. Don José’s music is devoted to loftier sentiments rather than to the body. It is made to behave in accordance with the universal tongue of Western art music.
Accordingly, Don José’s famous Flower Song constructs “images of fevered longing and dread, as he imagines Carmen as demon and then as object of desire. He sings of submitting himself masochistically to her power”. There is a lyrical urgency in the song but the music behaves as if it is constrained.
Gradually, the opera leads to inevitable closure brought about by the violent murder of Carmen. The chromatic slippage of Carmen’s music, which McClary says is carefully defined throughout the opera as “feminine”, is purged once and for all.
Carmen Musical Black And White
McClary notes that unlike earlier scenes, in which Bizet has freely indulged in Carmen’s sexy music, the final scene is informed by the necessity for tonal closure.
As José pleads with Carmen to give in, the bass line presents a slippery chromatic floor. The chromaticism must be excised. At the same moment that the crowd inside the bullring cheers in response to Escamillo’s victory over the bull, we (the music lovers) witness and celebrate the victory over an even more treacherous beast.
Carmen Musical Film
Chromatic slippage (representing disorder and chaos) is expunged, making way for the major triad (representing order and uniformity) which prevails.
Carmen Musical Piece
McClary says that for all the formal neatness of this conclusion, “we leave the theatre humming her infectious tunes”. The femme fatale character lives on through her music. In death, she has the ultimate control over her destiny. And thus Carmen is forever immortalised as one of the great heroines.
Carmen Musical Period
Carmen Musical Plot
Opera Australia’s season of Carmen runs May 14-25 at the Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre.