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'Carmen': Bizet's One-Opera Hit Parade

The tortured relationship between Carmen (mezzo-soprano Beatrice Uria-Monzon) and Don Jose (tenor Roberto Alagna) is at the center of one of opera's biggest blockbusters.
A. Bofil
/
Liceu Theatre Barcelona
The tortured relationship between Carmen (mezzo-soprano Beatrice Uria-Monzon) and Don Jose (tenor Roberto Alagna) is at the center of one of opera's biggest blockbusters.

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 George Bizet's blockbuster, Carmen.

For one thing, Carmen may have a bigger selection of hummable tunes than any other single opera. 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. The opera's string of hits includes the rousing toreador march that dominates the opera's introduction, the title character's sultry entrance scene and "Habanera," the playfully spooky "Urchin's Chorus" and the seductive "Seguedille" — all of which are heard before the end of act one!

As for Carmen's plot, 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 sort of guilty pleasures that draw people to sensational TV shows, or lurid movies.

Carmen herself, for example, easily falls into the same, femme fatale tradition that includes cinematic characters ranging from Rita Hayworth's title role in Gilda to the Sharon Stone character in Basic Instinct. Early audiences professed to be 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 — commonly 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 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 Bizet's Carmen from one of the foremost theaters in Spain, the Liceu in Barcelona. The production features a top-notch international case, including mezzo-soprano Beatrice Uria-Monzon in the title role, tenor Roberto Alagna as Don José and baritone Erwin Schrott as Escamillo.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.