14 February 2020
I’ve been reading about Carmen lately, as I will be seeing it staged at the Royal Opera House next weekend. What really stood out to me was the story of its composer, Georges Bizet. His story is that of many successful people: repeated failures, over and over and over—yet he never gave up, and he never compromised.
Bizet was recognised as an outstanding pianist at a very early age and probably could have had a successful career as a concert pianist. But this is not what he wanted. He rarely played piano in public. What he wanted to be was a composer. Not just a composer, but one of original, genre-breaking works.
Unfortunately, the state-subsidised opera houses in Paris of the late 1800s preferred the established classical repertoire to the works of newcomers. They only wanted wholesome entertainment that would please the masses, not challenge them.
So, to earn a living, Bizet arranged and transcribed the music of others. Despite the long hours this type of work required, he still managed to write many keyboard and orchestral compositions in what spare time he had—most of which were largely ignored.
Finally, two of his operas managed to reach the stage (Les Pêcheurs de Perles and La Jolie Fille de Perth)—these were not successes. Several competition entries, including a cantata and a hymn composed for the Paris Exhibition of 1867, were also unsuccessful.
In June 1871, he was appointed as chorus-master at The Opéra, which was a much better day job. However, he either resigned or refused to take up the position as a protest against what he thought was the director's unjustified closing of Ernest Reyer's opera Erostrate after only two performances.
In 1873, Bizet began composing Don Rodrigue. He played a piano version to a select audience that included the Opéra's principal baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, hoping that the singer's approval might influence the directors of the Opéra to stage the work. This was a success—until the Opéra burned to the ground and the directors set Don Rodrigue aside.
Still, Bizet got right back up and started working on Carmen, persevering though Opéra-Comique's management concerns about the suitability of this risqué story. Then early 1874, Adolphe de Leuven, the co-director of the Opéra-Comique most bitterly opposed to the Carmen project, resigned and the controversial piece was able to go into production.
And what a production it was. The orchestra had difficulties with the score, finding some parts unplayable. The chorus declared some of their music impossible to sing and were dismayed that they had to act as individuals, smoking and fighting onstage rather than merely standing in line as was traditionally done. Attempts by the Opéra-Comique to modify parts of the action which they deemed improper were ongoing. Bizet fought hard to retain his vision, though resolving all these issues delayed the first night.
Its breaking of conventions shocked and scandalized the audiences. Much of the press comment was predictably negative. The heroine was seen as an amoral seductress rather than a woman of virtue, the music had a lack of melody, and so on.
Carmen would go on to become one the most popular and frequently performed works in the entire opera repertoire. Musically, the "Habanera" from act 1 and the "Toreador Song" from act 2 are among the best known of all operatic arias.
But to Bizet, Carmen was just another failure: "I foresee a definite and hopeless flop.” Bizet died suddenly of heart failure after the 33rd performance, unaware that the work would achieve international acclaim within the following ten years.
The music critic Harold C. Schonberg surmises that, had Bizet lived, he might have revolutionised French opera. I agree. I’m sure he would have.