Opera Profile: ‘Carmen,’ Bizet’s Masterpiece

By David Salazar

“Carmen” is one of the greatest and most popular operas ever conceived. That combination is a rare one that only a handful of composers have truly managed.

But it didn’t seem destined for such a destiny.

When it premiered on March 3, 1875, the work was a complete failure. Unfortunately, Bizet died a month later thinking that his great masterpiece had been a mistake.

The opera became more popular after a number of productions outside France and it returned to the place of its birth in 1883. The work has been so popular that it has yielded a number of adaptations across several different art forms.

Short Plot Summary

Michaëla is looking for her fiancée Don José and after the change of the guard the two find one another and she sends him a message from his mother, who is ill in their village. Prior to that meeting however, Don José encounters the gypsy Carmen, who gives him a flower. Later Carmen is arrested for starting a fight with another one of the cigarette women and Don José is left to guard her. She seduces him and he helps her escape, but is arrested in the process.

Carmen is hanging out with her entourage at Lilias Pastia’s Inn when a bull fighter Escamillo and his entourage enter. Escamillo sets his eyes on Carmen, though she ignores him. Meanwhile, Zuniga, another military officer tries to win her over. Everyone leaves and Carmen is asked to join her smuggler friends in another job. Don José arrives and Carmen seduces him once more. However, when the bugle call sounds, he prepares to leave, angering Carmen. It looks like their relationship is at an end but Zuniga busts in to try and force Carmen into submission. Don José fights Zuniga, committing himself to Carmen and her friends.

Several months later, things are not going well between Carmen and Don José. Carmen’s fortune telling informs her that she is set to die. They all run off to do some work, leaving Don José on guard duty. Michaëla arrives seeking out Don José and hides in the encampment. Escamillo arrives seeking out Carmen, to Don José’s irritation. The two men square off to fight but are stopped by the arrival of the other smugglers. Michaëla is discovered and she informs José that his mother is dying. He runs off with Michaëla, promising Carmen that he will be back.

Bullfighters, including Escamilio, arrive at the arena in Seville. Carmen is with Escamillo and they declare their love for one another. When everyone has exited, Carmen is confronted by Don José, who begs her to come back with him. She resists and he ends up killing her.

Read More on Carmen

Quiz: Which “Carmen” Character Are You?

Different Adaptations of “Carmen”

Six Sopranos Who Recorded Or Performed The Mezzo Role

An Interview With Clémentine Margaine On “Carmen”

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording from the Metropolitan Opera starring Rise Stevens and Richard Tucker.

Here is Jonas Kaufmann and Anita Rachvelishvili.


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