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The problem with Carmen: why nobody understands opera’s most famous character

Editorial Staff

Written by Catherine Kustanczy

Carmen: everyone knows the music, but who knows the woman?

George Bizet’s tale of love, lust and betrayal is one of opera’s most familiar stories. Carmen herself is arguably the most famous character in all of opera — but does anyone actually understand what makes her tick?

Canadian mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy has sung the role a number of times throughout her career. “Carmen is very intelligent, extremely quick witted and tremendously fun,” she explains. “This is all part of her appeal.” But, McHardy surmises that any deeper knowledge of Carmen’s inner life is beside the point. “I don’t know that we want to know more about her,” she says. “We want to see that iconic femme fatale, period.”

That “femme fatale” interpretation is pretty much the default for Carmen, both onstage and onscreen. From Elīna Garanča’s anger to Anita Rachvelishvili’s joie-de-vivre to Julia Migenes’ smirking seductiveness, the character is known and celebrated for being the very embodiment of sex appeal, and is almost always portrayed with big hair, open shoulders, big bust, and bare feet.

But, while McHardy sees the character as a genre trope (one that audiences heartily enjoy), opera blogger Jenna Douglas doesn’t think it’s that simple. “I think we want to think of Carmen as this foil of all the other characters as opposed to a character of her own,” she says. “She’s the anti-Tosca, the anti-Lucia — like, all these ‘good women.’”

But, presenting Carmen as a mere foil doesn’t acknowledge the agency and power that Carmen has over her own story. She is very much her own woman — she works a factory job. She flirts with officers. She dances; she drinks; she fights; she frets. Carmen’s life is complicated. One minute, she gleefully plays the temptress. The next, a bad tarot card reading sends her spinning into an existential crisis. (“Carmen has her spiritual side,” Douglas explains, “but it’s not the God of the bible.”)

Douglas has dealt with Carmen both as a writer and in her role as a rehearsal pianist. To her, Carmen is no mere femme fatale, but rather a clever woman who emulates that cliché in order to exert control over the men surrounding her. “She’s doing exactly what men would love women to do,” Douglas says. Maybe that way, it’s possible for her to attain some relief from her clearly impoverished circumstances.

And nobody can deny Carmen’s opportunism; she is particularly adept at manipulating men to get what she wants. Initially, her seduction of the straight-arrow soldier Don José isn’t purely about romance; she’s trying to avoid going to prison. Carmen convinces José to free her using her feminine wiles, telling him they’ll “drink manzanilla” later.

“If she tried to do that every day, she wouldn’t have her job in the cigarette factory,” reasons Douglas. “She’s permanently at this bottom tier of social status, but she’s made it to the top of the bottom tier.”

But, the trouble with trying to flesh out Carmen’s character like this is that the opera’s libretto doesn’t offer a whole lot of detail. It rarely alludes to the specific circumstances that may have shaped and influenced Carmen’s choices. We know she works in a factory, we know she is poor, we know she likes to flirt. But what else? “We never see Carmen at home, so we don’t know what else is there,” Douglas says. “We don’t know if she’s got sisters, daughters, or whatever. And if she was about racking up numbers [sexually], we’d see her with more than two [men] in the opera.”

It’s worth noting that Bizet’s opera cuts out some key points from the Prosper Mérimée novel that it’s based on — José killing a man back home, and the fact that Carmen was married, for instance. But, it retains Don José’s obsession with Carmen — his desire to have her as a wife, rather than just a casual lover.

José’s obsession famously turns murderous in the opera’s final act. Perhaps we can interpret this in a larger sense as a reflection of society’s deep-seated fear of unbridled female sexuality, and of the patriarchal drive to contain and punish it. This fear, coupled with fascination, could be a part of what has enchanted audiences about the character for over a century.

Clearly, Carmen is more than a genre trope. And, as much as Allyson McHardy relishes that good-old-fashioned lady in red, she admits that Carmen “knows her own mind. If that makes her a bad girl, as Carmen would say, so be it.”

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