29 Sep 2016

Ten Things You May Not Know About “Carmen”

by Tara Faircloth

“Carmen” is one of the most beloved and often-performed operas in the entire world, and even if you’ve never stepped foot in an opera house, you probably already know all the big tunes. HOWEVER, here are ten things that you may not know about this opera:

1. French composer Georges Bizet wrote more than 30 operas and “Carmen” is the only one that is performed with any regularity.

2. After its premiere in 1875, “Carmen” was critically panned, and many believe the poor reception led to Bizet’s early death, at age 36. He died not knowing how beloved his opera would become.

3. The leading man in the story, Don José, had trained to be a priest. As a young man, he got into a fight after a game of paume (similar to tennis) and killed a man. He ran away from his hometown and joined the military to avoid arrest.

4. Micaëla, Don José’s hometown sweetheart, usually wears blond hair. She and José are from the Basque region of Navarre, in the northern part of Spain. The Navarrese were often fair, with blond hair and blue eyes.

5. When Don José attacks Escamillo in the mountains, he uses a Navaja knife. This large folding knife could lock open, and was favored for its easy concealment. Originally a weapon of the aristocracy, over time it became very popular among the criminal element.

6. The most famous song in the opera features a completely made up word: Toreador. The proper term is torero, but Bizet needed another syllable to fit the tune.

7. Matadors often came from a very poor background, and chose the sport as a way to get out of the ghetto. In early days, the prize for killing a bull was an ear (or two for excellent performance!) Winning also meant the bullfighter could claim the meat of the bull, a welcome source of food for a poor family. Finding a wealthy patron was the quickest way out of poverty.

8. The use of cards for divination is called cartomancy. Either Tarot or traditional playing cards may be used. They share a common origin, having been developed in China in the 9th century, and used for fortune telling in Europe as early as 1440.

9. A great quote from the beleaguered Bizet: “Ah, music! What a beautiful art! But what a wretched profession!”

10. Georges Bizet never set foot in Spain.