Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Carmen and the Staging of SpainRecasting Bizet's Opera in the Belle Epoque$

Michael Christoforidis and Elizabeth Kertesz

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780195384567

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195384567.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019

The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

(p.1) Prelude The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen
Carmen and the Staging of Spain

Michael Christoforidis

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Prelude briefly situates the creation of Carmen within a long tradition of Spanish entertainment in Paris, from its incarnation as a novella by Prosper Mérimée (in the 1840s) to the opera by Georges Bizet and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (1875). The fashions of the Second Empire; the influence of the Spanish-born Empress Eugénie, who fostered a taste for Spanish music and dance; and the growing community of Spanish performers and artists in Paris formed a cultural landscape that informed the local color of the opera. This Hispanic milieu in the French capital also conditioned and shaped Bizet’s musical depiction of Spain in Carmen.

Keywords:   Carmen, Georges Bizet, Paris, Prosper Mérimée, Empress Eugénie (Eugenia di Montijo), exoticism, Henri Meilhac, Ludovic Halévy, escuela bolera [Bolero school], flamenco


By the time Prosper Mérimée published his novella Carmen in 1845, the French cultural landscape was already crowded with literature, theater, and music that evoked a Romantic image of Spain. L’Espagne romantique, with its history and legends; its monuments and art; its customs, music, and dance; and, above all, its women, was a familiar and exotic pleasure to French audiences.1 Spain had been repeatedly “discovered” by French travelers in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the many soldiers and officials who had traveled to Spain during and after the Peninsular War (and the anti-liberal incursion of 1823) were followed by tourists and writers. A fascination for Spanish art had been awakened by French collectors “rescuing” great works from the wartorn Iberian peninsula, while liberals disenfranchised by the end of the Napoleonic era found in Spain a revolutionary people with freedom in their very nature, and elements of a preindustrial paradise that coexisted with poverty, backwardness, and barbarism.2

(p.2) At the same time, France was flooded with Spanish exiles and emigrés fleeing the political instability and repression that followed the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, the Liberal Triennium (1820–23), and that accompanied the Carlist Wars of the 1830s and 1840s.3 Spaniards formed a visible and creative group in Parisian culture for much of the nineteenth century, with each successive political upheaval sending a new wave of exiles fleeing northward. Writers and artists also sought out the French capital in order to extend their horizons and seek greater opportunities. The large community of expatriate Spanish artists resident in France recreated the topics of their homeland, “selling” an image of Spanishness that appealed to a public devouring travel writings, poetry, and fiction about Spain by the likes of François-René de Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Washington Irving, Théophile Gautier, Alexandre Dumas (père), and Prosper Mérimée himself. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the consolidation of stereotyped images of Spanish life and people, like bullfighters, gypsies, smugglers, and bandits, and of course Spanish women glancing coyly from under their lace mantillas or their gypsy counterparts performing exotic dances. It was during this period that the image of the dancing Spanish woman, which defined the character of Carmen, emerged in her modern form.

The theme of l’Espagne romantique proliferated on the Parisian stage in the post-Napoleonic era, in dance, plays, and opera.4 Spanish dances, and more particularly the ballerinas who performed them, achieved astonishing celebrity in the 1830s and 1840s. The Austrian Fanny Elssler sparked the international enthusiasm for these dances when she introduced a cachucha (her version of the lively solo Andalusian dance in triple time) as part of a ballet set in Spain, Le Diable boiteux, at the Paris Opéra in 1836, and the dance became celebrated for its lascivious southern character (see Figure P.1). A decade later the French dancer Marie Guy-Stephan presented the jaleo de Jerez, similar in style to the cachucha, and equally popular.5 The jaleo and the cachucha represented a style of Spanish dance based on clichés first established by the escuela bolera (Bolero School) in the late eighteenth century. Initially characterized by song and dance genres deriving from the theater, which were often based on folk-inspired forms like the seguidilla and bolero, the escuela bolera had evolved by the early nineteenth century to incorporate styles (p.3) (p.4) associated with the género andaluz. These latter forms include the tirana and the polo, which can also be traced in the songs of the renowned opera singer and composer Manuel García, whose music was to prove such an important source for Bizet’s own Spanish style.6 They also shaped the Spanish character dances of the Romantic ballet school that evolved in the post-Napoleonic period. International stars like Elssler and Marie Taglioni projected a new balletic incarnation of the Spanish escuela bolera dance style beyond the borders of Spain.7

The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

Figure P.1 Fanny Elssler in ‘‘La Cachucha’’ (1836).

Public domain.

Long viewed as a backward country by more “advanced” Western European nations, Spain and its image were reinterpreted during the first half of the nineteenth century. According to José Alvarez Junco, Romantic writers following the lead taken by Gautier and Irving increasingly saw Spain as “a country of strong passions, brave people, banditry, blood and sun.” The cast of characters familiar from the “Black Legend”—“the conquistador, the inquisitor, the idle aristocrat”—were “now converted into guerrilleros, bandits, Carlist friars, proud beggars, bullfighters,” and “represented different things: bravery, pride, dignity, intense religious feelings, closeness to death and scorn for it. All this was epitomized in Mérimée’s Carmen.”8

Alvarez Junco argues that this more positive re-evaluation emerged in response to a sense that Spain could meet a growing interest in a commodified exoticism among the new middle classes. Spain’s perceived status as a “premodern society” rendered it a conveniently close location for intellectuals seeking to celebrate a primitive paradise, unsullied by “industrialization, urbanization, and capitalism” (see Figure P.2). These notions of Spain incorporated colorful exoticism while simultaneously embracing a culture seen to be true to its roots, and offered relief from the ennui of modern Western society. This ideal Spain was characterized by spontaneity and the joy of living, and indeed by a quite specific understanding of Spanish national character.9 (p.5)


The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

Figure P.2 “Gipsies at Granada” in Henry Blackburn, Travelling in Spain in the Present Day (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1866), facing 208.

Prosper Mérimée traveled widely in Spain, and during his journey of 1830 he became a close friend of the family of the Count of Teba (later Montijo), forming a special intimacy with Countess Maria Manuela Montijo and her young daughter Eugenia. He tutored Eugenia and her sister in Paris during the 1830s, confirming a lifelong bond that led to preferment once Eugenia had married Napoleon III in 1853, becoming the Empress Eugénie. It seems that in the course of lively conversations, the Countess told Mérimée several stories that combined to form the kernel of his novella Carmen: a news story about a man who murdered his lover (a dancer) out of jealousy, and the problem of a relative who had fallen in love with a cigarrera (cigar maker).10 Over subsequent visits to Spain, Mérimée became an aficionado of bullfighting. In constructing his Carmen narrative, Mérimée was able to incorporate a wealth of cultural referents: banditry and smuggling, gypsy culture (as characterized by exotic stereotypes of fortune tellers, thieves, dancers, and women of easy virtue), bullfighting, and the ubiquitous presence of the military during those years of civil disturbance and guerrilla warfare. His knowledge of these themes was furthered by his association with Spanish authors, in particular the noted purveyor of Andalusian culture, Serafín Estébanez Calderón.11

Mérimée overlaid these cultural signifiers on the stories he had heard in Spain, creating an innovative literary form. His Carmen was first published in 1845 by the Revue des deux mondes, purporting to be a nonfictional account of an actual journey. The first-person narrator, a learned traveler and archaeologist, presents his travel tale, then cedes the central storytelling to José the bandit. This structure of double narrative reduces the eponymous “heroine” to a subsidiary character with no real voice of her own, although she seduces both narrators and becomes their obsession. In 1846 Mérimée added a final chapter focused on gypsy culture and language, underlining the element of linguistic and ethnographic observation that permeated the work. He then published the whole piece in a volume of his own novellas. It was released into a French market saturated with literature on Spanish themes, and gradually came to be seen as Mérimée’s masterpiece.12 Despite its scholarly overlay, this novella fulfilled the vision of l’Espagne romantique, as delineated by Léon-François Hoffmann, by narrating the tale of “the ideal Spanish couple: the (p.7) bandit and the gypsy” against a richly drawn background of Spanish regional customs, especially dance and the bullfight. Hoffmann concluded that “all this forms part of the Spanish dream of the collective imagination.”13 These Spanish themes continued to interest French authors of the Second Empire, from the informed criticism of Théophile Gautier to the travel writings of Jean Charles Davillier.

Empress Eugénie’s Paris and the Espagnolade

The fate of Mérimée and his Carmen owed much to the serendipity of Napoleon’s 1853 marriage to Eugenia de Montijo, daughter of Countess Maria Manuela, who as Empress Eugénie made Spain the height of Parisian fashion during the Second Empire (1852–70) (see Figure P.314). Parisians still remembered the charming Spanish dances of Fanny Elssler, and the Spanish-themed entertainments of the July Monarchy (1830–48), which are vividly evoked in the chorus and dance of the matadors in Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera La traviata (act 2, scene 2), in which Gastone and his friends dress up as bullfighters in a scene Emilio Sala considers reminiscent of “a pseudo-Spanish masquerade typical of Paris in the 1840s.”15 Eugénie perpetuated this fashion for Spanishness in dress and popular entertainment, hosting gatherings that included Mérimée, and featured Spanish songs performed by her music master Sebastián Iradier.

The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

Figure P.3 “The Empress Eugénie in Spanish Costume” in Madame Carette (née Bouvet), My Mistress, the Empress Eugénie, Or, Court Life at the Tuileries (London: Dean and Son, 1889), 109.

Despite Eugénie’s departure from her birthplace in early childhood, Granada and its Moorish past continued to be associated with the Empress, and this connection was celebrated by the Romantic poet José Zorrilla in the “Serenata morisca” he dedicated to her on the occasion of her marriage and coronation.16 By then resident in Paris, Zorrilla was one of a number of Spanish authors who gravitated to the French capital during the Second Empire, taking advantage of the new networks of patronage created by the presence of Eugénie and Spanish noble families that relocated to Paris, and by members of the cultural and commercial elites of the Hispano-American world (in particular from the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico, as well as Mexico and Argentina). The Countess of Montijo was a key figure in this (p.8) (p.9) community, at times interceding to promote performances of Spanish works (including the zarzuelas of Francisco Asenjo Barbieri).

The influx of Spanish authors and visual and performing artists during the Second Empire, in tandem with the tastes of their patrons and the French public, served to reinscribe the tropes of l’Espagne romantique, in particular their depictions of Andalusia, and the performance of styles of music and dance associated with that region. The resulting art and entertainment consolidated the espagnolade as a genre in Paris, which became a key site for its international dissemination. While the term espagnolade normally denominates foreign evocations of Spain by French (or other foreign) creative and performing artists, its development was in fact nourished by Spanish artists, at times drawing directly on aspects of Spanish culture. The movement known as costumbrismo, which flourished during the reign of Isabel II (1833–68), saw Spanish authors and visual artists engaging with local customs and scenes of everyday life in Spain, most notably from the region of Andalusia.17

The Parisian espagnolade was arguably a unique manifestation of nineteenth-century exoticism because it resulted from continuous cultural exchange, as Spanish artists in Paris both informed the espagnolade and were inspired by it. Despite the timelessness associated with Spain in such depictions, manifestations of the espagnolade did not remain static and were influenced by changing fashions, both French and Spanish. Unlike the larger Spanish urban centers of Madrid and Barcelona, however, Parisian audiences were more likely to hear newer styles of Spanish song and dance as well as older Spanish forms dating back to the early nineteenth century, such as the escuela bolera dances that were institutionalized as part of the Romantic ballet performed at the Opéra.18

Dance was the archetypal representation of Spanishness, and the early 1850s saw an influx of new Spanish dancers in Paris. This trend is attested to by the increasing number of specifically Andalusian names and genres in programs, like “La Granadina” dancing fandangos in 1853 or Pepa Vargas performing a soleá granadina in 1854. By this time, according to Lou Charnon-Deutsch, gypsies had come to be seen as a “key element” in every kind of Spanish dance, and some of the Andalusian dancers appearing in Paris in the 1850s, such as Pepita de Oliva (famed for her jaleo), were given a “gypsy” epithet (see Figure P.4).19 As more Andalusians and “gypsies” appeared in entertainment venues, Spanish dance embarked on a process of (p.10) Orientalization that removed it decisively from the sphere of the Romantic ballet, which had been championed by cosmopolitan stars like Elssler. This process of Orientalization and hybridization of Spanish dance in Paris (and companies performing between Spain and Paris), formed a substrate for (p.11) the evolution and staging of flamenco dance in the second half of the nineteenth century.20

The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

Figure P.4 Pepita de Oliva dancing “El ole” (c. 1850).

Credit: From the New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/55f93d80-d711-0132-5789-58d385a7bbd0.

In terms of Spanish song, the género andaluz, which had gained prominence in the first half of the nineteenth century, still held sway in Paris. The continuing influence of the genre was in part due to the efforts of performers such as Pauline Viardot and other members of the García clan (including Maria Malibran and Manuel García junior), and French theatrical works that perpetuated forms like the seguidillas, tiranas, and polos. Of even greater importance to the development of Spanish song in the Second Empire was the composer Sebastián Iradier, who had been associated with the Madrid court and went on to become Eugénie’s singing teacher. He developed the existing body of Andalusian songs, at times performed in the dress of a matador, and introduced new elements to the genre. But perhaps his greatest contribution to the espagnolade was in the dissemination of the habanera, that sensuous song-dance form that superimposes (and juxtaposes) triple and duple rhythmic figures.21

The habanera originated in Cuba through the Creolization of the European contredanse, and elements of this style were first presented to Parisian audiences in the late 1840s through the works of the New Orleans pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk.22 From the mid-nineteenth century the habanera also became a popular Spanish urban song and dance form, commonly referred to as an americana, but was not principally construed as an exotic genre, because Cuban culture was still strongly identified with Spain.23 It belonged to the category of canciones de ida y vuelta (“round-trip” songs), reflecting the repeated journey between the Iberian peninsula and the New World, along with several other popular or flamenco song and dance styles performed in the nineteenth century. By the 1860s, the habanera had been subjected to Hispanicization, integrating features of Andalusian song.24 In Europe it became a social dance and song style, and a favorite in aristocratic salons of France’s late Second Empire, where it clearly denoted Spanishness.25 The fact that the habanera was in part popularized in the court of Napoleon III and his Spanish wife, and (p.12) in the leading salons of Paris, casts doubt on modern claims that this “Creole” or “African-Cuban” form was principally associated with the ill repute of the Parisian cabaret.26 However, it can be viewed as an “Orientalized” form of Spanishness, as were the chansons maures that appeared in French salons from the 1860s, a Spanish development in the wake of the Moroccan campaigns of the 1850s, which aligned with a wave of Arab Andalusian nostalgia. These had their French counterparts in the chansons mauresques of the 1860s by the French composer (of Spanish parentage) Francisco Salvador Daniel, some of which were identified as chansons andalouses, or Arab Andalusian songs from Spain’s Moorish diaspora.

The chansons maures were also performed by Spanish guitarists and vocalists associated with Parisian salons during the Second Empire, such as Jaime Bosch (see Figure P.5) and Lorenzo Pagans, who were painted by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas respectively. Another of the famed Spanish classical guitarists present in the Hispanic circles of Paris was Trinidad Huerta, who, like Julián Arcas, had received the patronage of Queen Isabel II. Arcas included habaneras and protoflamenco forms in his repertoire, conforming with the tastes of Isabel II.27 By the mid-nineteenth century the guitar was viewed increasingly as a Spanish instrument in Paris, and was intimately associated with the soundscape and imagery of Spain.

The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

Figure P.5 J. Bosch, Plainte Moresque, op. 85 (1862); cover image by Édouard Manet

Credit: From the New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-41be-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

From around 1850 several generations of Spanish painters resident in Paris contributed to the success of the espagnolade, which in the visual arts coalesces around the Exposition Universelle of 1855.28 Parisians’ fascination with Spanish music and dance was complemented by revivals of interest in historic Spanish painting and engagement with Spanish themes by French painters such as Manet, who often depicted Spanish performers and was closely associated with Eugénie’s court. Encouraged by the markets created through l’art pompier (academic paintings, especially on historical themes), and the Second Empire vogue for the espagnolade, a second wave of Spanish artists began to arrive in Paris in the 1860s. By the early 1870s some of the leading Spanish artists known to the French public included Mariano Fortuny with his Orientalist visions of Spain, the realist painter Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, and the Spanish-born Daniel Vierge, who published many illustrations (p.13) in Le Monde illustré.29 The fashion for folk-inspired or antiquated Spanish dress (perpetuated by costume balls) and the reintroduction of bullfights to Paris in the late 1850s further reinforced the picturesque elements of Spanishness, as did the costumbrista paintings created by Spanish artists.

(p.14) The popularity and oversaturation of the espagnolade is attested to by the number of parodic stage works on Spanish themes produced during the Second Empire, including the folies-concertantes and operettas by Hervé (Florimond Ronger). However, by the mid-1860s Spanish-themed entertainments began to lose favor, coinciding with the declining fortunes of Napoleon and Eugénie’s regime, although there were more pointed references to the regime in works by Jacques Offenbach, at times with a Spanish theme aimed at Eugénie (as was the case with La Périchole of 1868).30 This was only a temporary setback, because the exile of Queen Isabel II to Paris from 1868 (made permanent by her abdication in 1870) provided renewed patronage for Spanish artists. A prominent sponsor of the arts (especially works drawing on popular culture) during her long reign in Spain, Isabel continued these activities in the company of the noble families who relocated with her to Paris. In the wake of the 1867 Exposition Universelle, these developments provided further encouragement for the large number of Spanish musicians gravitating to Paris.

Albums of Spanish songs were in demand in Paris, especially from the late 1860s, building on the growing market for both popular and classical music in Spain itself during the years of the Sexenio Democrático (dating from the revolution of 1868 to the Bourbon restoration in 1874). During this period numerous collections of folk and popular songs—often known as cancioneros—were published in Spain, some of which were also popular in Paris. This era also marks the beginnings of travel writers describing some of the flamenco genres that had begun to be disseminated in the cafés cantantes (taverns with musical entertainment and usually dancers) of the 1870s. These venues, especially after 1870 when Silverio Franconetti opened the first of his establishments in Seville, created the contexts for the coalescing of flamenco forms, their modes of performance, and staging, while contributing to the professionalization of flamenco song (cante), dance (baile), and guitar playing (toque).

Projections of Spain in Georges Bizet’s Carmen

Bizet’s choice of Mérimée’s Carmen as the subject for his new opéra comique appears almost quixotic, as it posed his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy a significant challenge.31 Not only were they faced with the delicate task of reimagining Mérimée’s well-known and rather brutal story for the (p.15) bourgeois audience of the Opéra-Comique, but they also had to construct an effective drama with just enough Spanish local color to entertain a public perhaps slightly weary of a topic still associated with the overthrown Second Empire. Meilhac and Halévy were, however, celebrated writers of the French theater (authors of many Offenbach operettas), capable of incorporating spectacle, topical elements, and humor while still allowing the human drama of the story to play out.

By commissioning a new opera from Bizet, Meilhac, and Halévy in 1872, Camille Du Locle, director of the Opéra-Comique, was attempting to renovate the theater’s repertoire and breathe new life into the traditionalist opéra comique style.32 His company, which performed in the Salle Favart on the Place Boïeldieu, was dedicated to lighter operatic subjects, with spoken dialogue, differentiating their offerings from the staple of grand opera featured at the nearby Opéra. The subject of Carmen broke with the trend for opéras comiques on historical themes, in which the heroes were almost always noble or royal. This approach did not change until around 1879, when works celebrating the lower classes began to appear, and may have materially affected the reception of Carmen when it reappeared on the Parisian stage in 1883.33 It is possible that the librettists consciously injected a satirical element in their portrait of the two main characters, as the downfall of ineffectual northerner José because of his obsession with the showy southern gypsy Carmen reflected the widespread belief that Napoleon III lost his throne as a result of allowing his Spanish wife, Eugénie, to exercise too much power.34 In their collaboration with Offenbach, Meilhac and Halévy had already alluded to the excesses of the Second Empire and the power of the Empress, especially in La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein (1867) and La Périchole (1868, revised 1874, based on a play by Mérimée). The protagonist of La Périchole is a poor Hispanic street singer who uses her wits to avoid the lecherous advances of the Viceroy of Peru and the plot allowed Offenbach to include a seguidilla and bolero among the numbers.35

(p.16) Carmen’s less than heroic leading man aside, Meilhac and Halévy created a cast of characters both to entertain and touch the heart: Escamillo provides a welcome swagger as the colorful bullfighter, while the addition of Micaëla—extraneous both to the central love triangle and the opera’s projection of Spain—contributes an unthreatening and wholesome foil to Carmen, and stands in for José’s absent and loving mother. Carmen herself is a new kind of protagonist. Her identity transcends that of the femme fatale, for she is an entertainer who performs Spanishness in nearly all her numbers, whether through her sensuality, the abandon of the dance, or gypsy superstition. Despite her narrative of independence and famous solo arias, closer examination of the words reveal that Carmen has little subjective or first-person lyric utterance, and although she may ruin José, she is equally clearly the victim of inescapable destiny.

Meilhac and Halévy’s simplification of the dramatic structure, contrasting with the complexity and detail of Mérimée’s novella, led to criticism of their efforts. According to Halévy, playwright Jean Henri Dupin complained,

Here is a man who meets a woman … he finds her pretty, that’s the first act. He loves her, she loves him, that’s the second. She doesn’t love him any more, that’s the third. He kills her, and that’s the fourth.

And you call that a play! In a real play you have to have surprises, misunderstandings, adventures, things that make one ask “what is going to happen in the next act?”36

Yet this was to become the most familiar of operatic stories, renowned for its strong dramatic narrative. Dupin seemed to miss the opera’s underlying theme of inexorable and tragic fate, which stemmed from the implication of both the ancient Greek epigraph about woman’s bitterness that opens the novella, and Mérimée’s closing sentence, in which he blames Carmen’s tragic destiny on her gypsy race. French Hispanist Jean Sentaurens defends the libretto, declaring it a “faithful and intelligent reading” of Mérimée’s work, in which Meilhac and Halévy simply reduced José’s long narrative to its fundamental (p.17) schema, concentrating the action in four spectacular episodes that represent the stages in the tragic confrontation between the two protagonists.37

Meilhac and Halévy took Mérimée’s realist descriptions of a lawless and at times savage Spain, and transformed them into l’Espagne romantique, neatly packaged for the bourgeois theater, abandoning the various locations of the original in favor of a clear focus on Seville, the archetypal site of Spanish exoticism. To the existing Spanish stereotypes of bandits smuggling in the mountains and sensual gypsy women, they added sufficient local color—a few additional gypsy characters and a bullfight, that compulsory emblem of Spain—to sell the story on the Opéra-Comique stage. This predigested exoticism synthesized all the main elements of local color, within the librettists’ attempt to ameliorate the plot’s essential violence by avoiding scenes that would discomfit a polite audience, a process that led some critics to comment on their active exclusion of the “harsher reality” of Mérimée’s original.38 In the opinion of the renowned Italian critic and godfather of operatic verismo, Amintore Galli, Meilhac and Halévy had faithfully adapted Mérimée’s novella (with the exception of their invention of Micaëla). Galli argued that “[o]‌ne needs to recognize that their reduction was made with great knowledge of the theater.”39 Indeed, taken in the context of contemporary operatic exoticism featuring spectacular settings in Egypt or the Far East, their employment of local color could be viewed as restrained. The familiarity of the Spanish stereotypes meant that they could be fully integrated into the production, allowing Bizet to create a coherent and recognizable world, a setting sufficiently familiar that it did not detract attention from the drama itself.

Bizet also wished to renew the opéra comique genre, doing away with vocal display and effect for its own sake and as a means to draw applause from the audience. According to Halévy, he sought instead to imbue the work with the maximum “truth and passion, movement and life.”40Carmen’s first act is (p.18) recognizable as an opéra comique, with its conventional plot and clearly defined numbers, especially the duet between Micaëla and Don José. The later acts, however, depart more and more radically from the traditional forms, with only some numbers like the “Toreador Song” in act 2 and Micaëla’s aria in act 3 operating within the familiar style. The almost continuous musical fabric of the final act heightened its shocking drama and further distanced the work from opéra comique conventions.

The radical conception of the opera’s final act indicates the librettists’ sensitivity to changing representations of Spain in music and literature. Mérimée led his unhappy couple to a deserted hillside for an unobserved final confrontation, whereas Meilhac and Halévy provided an almost Oriental setting for the death of Carmen by moving it to a spectacular and public location, set against the tumult and excitement of an invisible but audible bullfight. The Opéra-Comique’s set designers contributed a magnificent design with three great quasi-Arab arches to frame the murder of Carmen, bringing to mind images from Henri Regnault, Georges Clairin, and Fortuny’s celebrated Orientalist paintings of the early 1870s that portrayed the massacre of the Abencerrajes, the despotic final Moorish dynasty of fifteenth-century Granada. In an ironic cultural twist, the representation of Arab despotism in these paintings, especially in the case of Regnault, may have been inspired by the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, and is distantly echoed in the 1875 poster for Carmen, which depicts her corpse framed by a great Arab archway (see Figure P.6).

The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

Figure P.6 Prudent Louis Leray, poster for premiere of Carmen (1875).

Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Bizet may have emulated Mérimée in employing sources that were already part of the musical panoply of l’Espagne romantique and the espagnolade. He constructed the local color of his score from recognizable and remembered Spanish music, and if he adapted classic, familiar, even conventional song forms, these choices may explain why the French critics at the opera’s premiere did not find the Spanish forms in themselves remarkable.

Bizet’s musical depiction of Spain seems to be based on direct musical borrowings from published sources in only two instances, but as Locke has demonstrated, the identification of Bizet’s sources is perhaps less interesting than the way he adapted and transformed them. The first of these borrowings, in terms of the opera’s compositional chronology, occurs in the entr’acte to act 4; the entr’acte is based on elements of Manuel García’s early nineteenth-century polos “Cuerpo bueno, alma divina” and “El contrabandista.” The second is Carmen’s immortal “Habanera” (act 1), which marks the beginning of her relationship with José and the inclusion of which was indebted to the intervention of the first Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié.41 This late addition to the opera was adapted from “El arreglito” by Iradier, whose works enjoyed great (p.19) (p.20) vogue in Paris and who was best known for another of his habaneras, the ever popular “La paloma.” The marked Spanish character of Carmen’s “Séguedille” from the end of act I, sung to inveigle José into letting her escape custody, shows its roots in the seguidilla, a Spanish song and dance form that was popular in France in the first half of the nineteenth century.42

It has become commonplace to perceive aspects of flamenco in the music of Carmen, and this association has been reinforced by productions of the opera over the twentieth century. The protagonist expresses herself through song and dance, and she is typically depicted as a flamenco performer, but flamenco as we recognize it today was largely unknown to Bizet. None of the song and dance forms employed by Bizet can be classified as flamenco, an art form that was just coalescing in Spain when Carmen was composed. The Parisian public caught glimpses of this new style in some of the dance spectacles of the Second Empire—particularly in the evolving Orientalization and gypsification of dance styles from the escuela bolera—and through the travel writings and images of Spain being disseminated in the 1860s and 1870s. What we have in Carmen is reference to a number of song forms—especially the polo—that form part of the preflamenco era of the género andaluz, which in turn nourished and informed some of the flamenco forms (or palos). But in a process that paralleled the evolution of flamenco forms and dance styles, Bizet dramatized and Orientalized elements that he had drawn from the género andaluz and other sources in his depiction of Spain.43 Bizet’s new orchestral stylization of Spanish music in turn facilitated the use of his music as a backdrop for flamenco dance performances by 1900, either within the opera or in danced adaptations, thereby consolidating the nexus between Carmen and flamenco.

One of the markers of the género andaluz was the Andalusian cadence, a stepwise descending chordal progression over a four-note figure, or tetrachord (i–VII–VI–V in relation to a minor key, and often expressed as the chords of A minor, G major, F major, and E major when played on the guitar). The Andalusian cadence, more often used as an ostinato or repeated chord progression, forms the harmonic basis of a number of flamenco palos. Bizet clearly and dramatically enunciated this progression in the midst of the entr’acte to act 4, played fortissimo in the orchestra with the descending line emphatically proclaimed by the trumpets and trombones. In addition to such presentations (p.21) of the Andalusian cadence in its original form, Bizet also adapted it and placed it into a variety of musical contexts throughout the score.

The “fate” motive, which is first heard in the overture and is employed dramatically throughout the opera, has been repeatedly referred to as one of the Orientalized or Arab elements of Bizet’s score. The early-twentieth-century French composer and Hispanist Raoul Laparra described it as “a swarthy type with its interval of the augmented second. … It seems to exhale a strong and magical breath of Africa. It has something of the desert and the devastated soul of Don José. … It is also Carmen.”44 Closer to Bizet’s time it had also been identified as a distinctly Arab element of the score by the Spanish composer and critic Felipe Pedrell and the Italian critic Galli, who claimed that it was based on a descending tetrachord of the Arab Asbein mode.45 However, it is more likely that Bizet—an experienced purveyor of musical exoticism in operas such as Djamileh and Les Pêcheurs de perles—actually chromaticized his Spanish sources, in this case inserting an augmented second (that ubiquitous musical marker of the Orient) into the falling tetrachord of the Andalusian cadence to fashion the fate motive. Bizet applied this process of chromatic inflection to his other Spanish borrowings, including the vocal line of Carmen’s “Habanera,” possibly with the intention of further Orientalizing or dramatizing the original sources.

The Andalusian cadence is alluded to as a harmonic ostinato in passages of the “Chanson bohème” (act 2), although it is augmented temporally with each chord repeated over several bars. The employment of an ostinato bass in this number echoes long-standing associations of repetitive harmonic patterns such as the folia or the romanesca with Spain (as noted by some of the early critics of the opera), and contemporary evocations of a gypsy dance, or romalis, although this last form is more specifically referenced by Carmen’s number in act 2, “Je vais danser en votre honneur.” Building from the simple flute strains of its quiet entry, and adding new instrumental color as the energy intensifies with each new stanza, the “Chanson bohème” literally speeds toward its ecstatic climax. This acceleration to the finish accords with the practice of some flamenco bailes (as well as representations of gypsy dance music from the latter part of the nineteenth century), a device that further accommodated its later staging as a flamenco spectacle.

Another key component of the género andaluz was the employment of the guitar or its evocation. Elements of this style were to be developed and refined by guitarists performing in Paris in the 1860s and 1870s, and Bizet was (p.22) familiar with these effects through hearing performances or studying piano imitations of such music. Passages of Bizet’s score reflect guitar tuning and the harmonic practices associated with the instrument in the género andaluz. The idiosyncratic tuning of the open strings is hinted at in sections of the “Chanson bohème,” while the entr’acte to act 4 references some of the harmonic peculiarities that arise from strumming a chord that includes some open strings, and then shifting the fingered chord shape up and down the fret board against the unchanging pitch of the open strings.46 The “Chanson bohème” and the entr’acte to act 4 also provide examples of Bizet evoking the sonority of the guitar, principally via pizzicato strings and harp, which are at times accompanied by the tambour de basque, adding a further touch of Spanish color. Castanets, another quintessential marker of Spain, also feature in Bizet’s score, most notably played by Carmen to accompany her romalis in act 2.

Even beyond his imitation of the guitar, Bizet invested the local color of Carmen with a new orchestral garb and dynamism that brought his instrumental writing to the fore as a key marker of Spanishness, relaunching the orchestral showpiece on Spanish themes that traced its origins to Mikhail Glinka’s Capriccio brilliante on the Jota aragonesa (1845). Reviewing the premiere of Carmen, Victor Fournel claimed that orchestration, which had usually been nothing more than an “accompagnement subaltern” at the Opéra-Comique, was taken to a new level by Bizet, perhaps going so far as to convert the opera from a dramatic to a symphonic work.47 The orchestral color and filigree of Carmen was even lauded by Spanish critics, and became a model for Spanish composers. The symphonic evocation of Spanish forms by French composers had gained momentum in the 1870s, in particular in works such as Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole (1874). A key figure in this enterprise was the virtuoso violinist Pablo Sarasate, one of a new wave of Spanish performers arriving in Paris during the Second Empire, who was well received by French audiences and accepted as a peer by the musicians associated with the Société Nationale de Musique (see Figure P.7). He had performed with Bizet in this forum in 1873 and is thought to have suggested a folk source that was adapted by Bizet into Carmen’s “tra la la la” riposte to Zuñiga and José in the penultimate number of act 1.48 Sarasate prefigures the complicity and agency of Spanish artists, most notably Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados, (p.23) in the consolidation and evolution of Spanish musical tropes in Western concert music.

The Spains of Paris, Mérimée, and Bizet’s Carmen

Figure P.7 Pablo de Sarasate (after a photograph by Fr. Hanfstängl), in Die Gartenlaube 7 (1886): 113.

Bizet’s score is also filled with brilliant evocations of local color without necessarily having direct recourse to Spanish musical styles: for instance, in the chorus numbers and crowd scenes that open acts 1 and 4. Likewise, his masterful use of fanfares and marches not only indicates the military presence in Seville (act 1), but also sets the stage for the disembodied bugle call that reminds José of his duty when he is tempted to stay with Carmen in act 2. Bizet probably composed original fanfares imitating military practice, although he may have also had in mind the long-standing musical traditions of depicting Spanish military fanfares (especially the retreat).

The bullfight, while not actually depicted on stage, is used by Bizet as a musical frame for the opera, from the evocative fanfares and marches of the overture to the boisterous music of the final act. In Escamillo’s “Toreador Song” (act 2), Bizet describes all the pageantry and drama of the bullfight before breaking into the jaunty, swaggering march that quickly became one of the opera’s most popular numbers. Although not a pasodoble, which is the type of march traditionally performed at and during a bullfight, it gained such (p.24) popularity (even in Spain) that it has on occasion been played at real bullfights during the twentieth century. Likewise, the march that begins the overture to Carmen could be construed as evoking a pasodoble.49 In the stunning denouement to the opera, fragments of this march and the “Toreador Song” are reprised, a reminder of the bullfight playing out offstage that breaks in waves of sound across the final, fatal confrontation between Carmen and José. It is the perfect union of local color, drama, and the staging of Spain.


(1.) In effect, “Spain became à la mode in France between 1800 and 1850.” Lou Charnon-Deutsch, The Spanish Gypsy: The History of a European Obsession (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 57.

(2.) Spanish influence on French literature, theater, and music—both high-status and popular—indicates a continuing cultural exchange. Gustave Larroumet noted the effect of visiting Spain on French painters, and celebrated the various French literary renewals sparked by Spanish-influenced works. Gustave Larroumet, “Carmen et les gitanes de Grenade,” in Nouvelles Études d’histoire et de critique dramatiques (Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1899), 305. In line with most of the historical sources consulted, we use the term gypsy (and gipsy, gitana, gitane) instead of Romani or Roma.

(3.) See Montserrat Bergadá, “Musiciens espagnols à Paris entre 1820 et 1868: État de la question et perspectives d’études,” in La Musique entre France et Espagne: Interactions stylistiques 1870–1939, ed. Louis Jambou (Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003), 17–38. For a more general discussion of the pro-French exiles who poured into France after Napoleon’s defeat in 1813 and the restoration of Spain’s Bourbon monarchy, and the emigration caused by the Carlist Wars, see Henry Kamen, The Disinherited: The Exiles Who Created Spanish Culture (London and New York: Allen Lane, 2007), 171–212.

(4.) For a wide-ranging consideration of the presence of Spanishness in French culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, with a particular emphasis on theater and literature, see Léon-François Hoffmann, Romantique Espagne: L’Image de l’Espagne en France entre 1800 et 1850 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1961).

(5.) Emilio Sala, The Sounds of Paris in Verdi’s La traviata, trans. Delia Casadei (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 78; Gerhard Steingress, . . . Y Carmen se fue a París (Cordoba: Almuzara, 2006), 88–112.

(6.) García was only one among many Spanish musicians who made sustained contributions to French cultural life in the early 1800s; his notable compatriots include the guitarist and composer Fernando Sor, whose ballets were produced at the Paris Opéra in the 1820s.

(7.) Delfín Colomé, “El ballet en España y Rusia: Influencias mutuas,” in Relaciones musicales entre España y Rusia, ed. Antonio Álvarez Cañibano et al. (Madrid: Centro de documentación de música y danza, 1999), 130.

(8.) José Alvarez Junco, “The Nation-Building Process in Nineteenth-Century Spain,” in Nationalism and the Nation in the Iberian Peninsula, ed. Clare Mar-Molinero and Angel Smith (Oxford and Washington, DC: Berg, 1996), 94.

(9.) Alvarez Junco, “Nation-Building Process,” 94–95.

(10.) Luis López Jiménez and Luis-Eduardo López Esteve, “Introducción,” in Prosper Mérimée: Carmen, trans. Luis López Jiménez and Luis-Eduardo López Esteve (Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1997), 13.

(11.) Hervé Lacombe and Christine Rodriguez, La Habanera de Carmen: Naissance d’un tube (Paris: Fayard, 2014), 23.

(12.) López Jiménez and López Esteve, “Introducción,” 13–18; Peter Robinson, “Mérimée’s Carmen,” in Georges Bizet, Carmen, ed. Susan McClary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 2.

(13.) Unless otherwise acknowledged, all translations are by the authors. Hoffmann, Romantique Espagne, 134–35.

(14.) This image appears to be based on Édouard Odier’s Equestrian Portrait of Eugénie (1849), in which Eugénie is depicted wearing a Spanish riding habit, mounted on an Andalusian horse. Alison McQueen, Empress Eugénie and the Arts: Politics and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Farnham, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 78–79.

(15.) Sala, Sounds of Paris, 79.

(16.) Narciso Alonso Cortés, Zorrilla: Su vida y sus obras (Valladolid, Spain: Imprenta Castellana, 1918), 2: 165–66.

(17.) There were earlier and later manifestations of costumbrismo, and in terms of music it is most often associated with genres of the lyric stage, including the zarzuela and the shorter, often comic, género chico.

(18.) Celsa Alonso, La canción lírica española en el siglo XIX (Madrid: ICCMU, 1998), 233–76; Steingress, Carmen, 163–86.

(19.) Charnon-Deutsch, Spanish Gypsy, 48.

(20.) Steingress, Carmen, 13–23.

(21.) Alonso explores the género andaluz and its evolution in Paris in her groundbreaking volume on Romantic Spanish song: Alonso, La canción lírica, 233–76.

(22.) Lacombe and Rodriguez, La Habanera de Carmen, 91–103. Lacombe and Rodriguez also point out the slightly earlier piano works of Julian Fontana published in Paris in the mid-1840s.

(23.) Even after the loss of Cuba as a colony in 1898, Manuel de Falla included a “Cubana” as one of his Cuatro piezas españolas (1906–8). See also Linares and Nuñez, La música entre Cuba y España, 191–92.

(24.) Lacombe and Rodriguez, La Habanera de Carmen, 103; Alonso, La canción lírica, 264–67.

(25.) Dozens of editions of Iradier’s songs appeared in Paris, with major collections released c. 1857 and in 1864. The covers of the sheet music name singers who performed Iradier’s music (including Maria Malibran, Pauline Viardot, and Adelina Patti) while making claims that the songs were performed at the leading salons of Paris and London. Alonso, La canción lírica, 317–18.

(26.) Susan McClary, Georges Bizet, Carmen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 51–52.

(27.) Isabel II also had a penchant for the emerging flamenco song forms accompanied by guitar, and in 1866 one of the leading exponents of the artform, Silverio Franconetti, performed for her.

(28.) Alonso, La canción lírica, 305; Carlos González López and Montserrat Martí Ayxelá, Pintores españoles en París: 1850–1900 (Barcelona: Tusquets, 1989), 13–54.

(29.) Orientalist visions of Spanish Morocco by Spanish artists like Fortuny both drew upon and influenced French painters like Henri Regnault.

(30.) Steingress, Carmen, 13–23.

(31.) Lesley Wright, “Carmen and the Opéra-Comique,” in Carmen: Georges Bizet, ed. Gary Kahn (Richmond, UK: Overture, 2013), 43.

(32.) Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 197. See Wright’s essay for further discussion of the Opéra-Comique from the late 1860s to 1875: Wright, “Carmen and the Opéra-Comique,” 36–42.

(33.) Spies observes conservative tendencies in his study of libretti of both the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, but identifies liberalizing changes after 1879 at the Opéra-Comique only. André Michael Spies, Opera, State and Society in the Third Republic, 1875–1914 (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 8.

(34.) This idea is suggested by Nelly Furman in “The Languages of Love in Carmen,” in Reading Opera, ed. Arthur Groos and Roger Parker (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 169.

(35.) La Périchole sings the line “Il grandira, car il est Espagnol” (which was thought to refer to Eugénie’s advancement of Spaniards, or possibly be a compliment to her son, the young Prince Napoleon). Arturo Delgado Cabrera and Emilio Menéndez Ayuso, “Saynete, opérette, fête: En torno a Mérimée y Offenbach,” Anales de filogía francesa 17 (2009): 155.

(36.) Jean Henri Dupin, who had been a noted collaborator of Eugène Scribe, was affronted by the work’s inattention to basic tenets of construction: he criticized the continuity of the score, which left too few places for applause, and he was enraged by the shortcomings of the plot. Visiting the librettists the day after the premiere, he expressed his exasperation, as recalled by Halévy in this quotation. Ludovic Halévy, “La Millième Représentation de Carmen,” Le Théâtre 145 (January [I]‌ 1905): 10.

(37.) For an overview of the adaptation, see Edgar Istel and Janet Wylie Istel (trans.), “Carmen: Novel and Libretto: A Dramaturgic Analysis,” Musical Quarterly 7, no. 4 (1921): 493–510. See also Chapter 2, “The Genesis of Bizet’s Carmen,” in McClary, Georges Bizet, Carmen, 15–28; Jean Sentaurens, “Carmen: De la novela de 1845 a la zarzuela de 1887; Cómo nació ‘la España de Mérimée,’” Bulletin hispanique [104], no. 2 (2002): 857. For a lively synopsis coupled with a detailed examination of the work’s adaptation from novella to libretto, see Richard Langham Smith, “Carmen: From Mérimée to Bizet,” in Carmen: Georges Bizet, ed. Gary Kahn, 11–34.

(38.) Mina Curtiss, Bizet and His World (New York: Vienna House, 1958), 383; Kerry Murphy, “Carmen: Couleur locale or the Real Thing?” in Music, Theater, and Cultural Transfer: Paris, 1830–1914, ed. Annegret Fauser and Mark Everist (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 309.

(39.) Amintore Galli, “Carmen: Dramma lirico in quattro atti … ,” Il teatro illustrato, 16 December 1880, 3–4, 7; reproduced in Sergio Viglino, La fortuna italiana della “Carmen” di Bizet (1879–1900) (Torino: EDT, 2003), 88.

(40.) Halévy, “La Millième Représentation de Carmen,” 8.

(41.) For discussion of Galli-Marié’s involvement in the composition of Carmen, see Karen Henson, Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 52–53; Hervé Lacombe, “La Version primitive de l’air d’entrée de Carmen: Réflexion sur la dramaturgie et ‘l’autorialité’ d’un opéra,” in Aspects de l’opéra français de Meyerbeer à Honegger, edited by Jean-Christophe Branger and Vincent Giroud (Lyon, France: Symétrie, 2009), 29–45. In addition to discussing Galli-Marié, Ralph P. Locke provides a detailed examination of Bizet’s borrowings in “Spanish Local Color in Bizet’s Carmen: Unexplored Borrowings and Transformations,” in Music, Theater, and Cultural Transfer, ed. Fauser and Everist (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009c), 316–60.

(42.) Locke speculates that the lyrics of Carmen’s “Séguedille” are related to Iradier’s “El arreglito.” Locke, “Spanish Local Color,” 353–58.

(43.) Locke argues that Bizet may have referred to a transcription of another preflamenco form in the guise of the “Malagueña” transcribed by P. Lacome in Echos d’Espagne: Chansons & danses populaire, collected and transcribed by P. Lacome and J. Puig y Alsubide (Paris: Durand et Fils, n.d.). See Locke, “Spanish Local Color,” 320.

(44.) Raoul Laparra, Bizet et l’Espagne (Paris: Librairie Delegrave, 1935), 12–13.

(45.) F. P. [Felipe Pedrell], “La quincena musical,” Ilustración musical hispano-americana 1, no. 2 (1888): 10; Amintore Galli, “Del melodrama attraverso la storia e dell’opera verista del Bizet,” Il teatro illustrato 4, no. 9 (March 1884): 34–36, reproduced in Viglino, La fortuna italiana della Carmen, 111.

(46.) Locke, “Spanish Local Color,” 345. Locke has argued convincingly that Bizet could have observed this practice in his copy of P. Lacome and J. Puig y Alsubide’s Echos d’Espagne.

(47.) Victor Fournel, “Les Oeuvres et les hommes,” Le Correspondant (Paris), 10 March 1875, in Lesley Wright, ed., Georges Bizet, Carmen: Dossier de presse parisienne (1875) (Weinsberg, Germany: Lucie Galland, 2001), 100.

(48.) María Nagore Ferrer, Sarasate: El violín de Europa (Madrid: ICCMU, 2013), 186.

(49.) Some of Bizet’s fanfares may also suggest the fanfares that punctuate the commencement and different tercios (thirds or sections) of a bullfight.