From Broadway to Beyoncé, The Many Adaptations of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

By David Salazar

Bizet’s “Carmen” is one of the great operas of all time and one of the few to really have a massive impact on popular culture.

The opera, which premiered back on March 3, 1875, was a failure upon premiering with Bizet never actually getting a chance to experience the success of his masterwork.

Since then the opera, which was adapted from Prosper Merimée’s novella, has undergone a plethora of adaptations and transformations. Here is a look at how the opera has been transformed over the years.

The Tragedy of Carmen

The opera itself received a transformation in operatic form with Peter Brooks slicing down the work to its bare essentials. The work runs at 90 minutes putting an even greater spotlight on the dynamics between Don José and Carmen while cutting down on supporting characters. Skylark Opera Artistic Director Robert Neu told OperaWire about the adaptation in a recent interview, citing that Brooks’ “stripped away the chorus, the dancers, all the secondary characters, leaving just six characters and 90 minutes of music.” Even the preludes are gone from the opera and there is even new dialogue inserted from the original novella by Merimée and even the insertion of Carmen’s husband Garcia. A New York Times article from 1983 noted that this was not Bizet’s opera, but Brooks’ version.

Francesco Rosi’s Film Adaptation

The opera’s film adaptation is also worthy of note for a number of reasons. Rosi opens the opera on a bullfight, signaling to the audience how he sees the relationship between Don José and Carmen. From there on, every move and gesture from Plácido Domingo and Julia Migenes play into that concept, the audience almost unable to move away from it. For the most part, the highly awarded film stays true to the opera but it’s this opening that really sets up the grand vision of the overall arc.

Carmen Jones

Broadway was never going to steer clear of this ever-popular opera as evidenced by Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of it. The music of Bizet remains at the forefront of the work but it has been updated to a World War II-era African-American setting. The plot is virtually untouched with Carmen a parachute maker, Don Jose an Air Force pilot, Michaela is now his fiancée Cindy Lou and Escamillo is a boxer. The work was adapted to film by famed director Otto Preminger with Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Joe Adams and Olga James.

Carmen: A HipHopera

The world of hip-hop also got in on the act in 2001 with Beyoncé leading the way. In that film, the superstar singer (though at the time she was far from the phenomenon she is today) played Carmen Brown, an aspiring actress. The plot remains rather truthful to the opera with Don José now Sergeant Hill. Escamillo turns into the rapper Blaze while Michaela is Caela, a cocktail waitress.

Carlos Saura’s “Carmen”

Perhaps the most famous adaptation of the opera has no singing whatsoever. Saura, acknowledging that Bizet and Merimée’s work is pregnant with clichés of French romanticism, gives the story a Spanish twist. He sets it among a troop of Flamenco dancers rehearsing their own adaptation of Merimée’s work. Slowly but surely the real-life and artistic life blend with the tragedy ultimately playing out as one might expect. Anyone that has seen Richard Eyre’s production at the Metropolitan Opera will immediately see the impact of this film on his vision for the opera.

Other Notable Adaptations

The adapting of this classic tale does not end there with a Bollywood live performance of an adaptation.

Several other film adaptations have resulted including Jean-Luc Godard’s “First Name: Carmen.” Stars such as Sarita Montiel (“Carmen La De Ronda”) and Rita Hayworth (“The Loves of Carmen”) have taken on the role in cinema while two adaptations were concocted in Senegal (“Karmen Gei”) and South Africa (“U-Carmen eKhayelitsha”).

There was also a dance film from Germany called “Carmen on Ice” featuring the story told through the music and the movement of the skaters. There is no spoken dialogue and the characters retain their original identities from Bizet’s opera.




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