ComposerLike Rossini, Alexandre-Cesar-Leopold (Georges) Bizet was born to musician parents in Paris on October 25, 1838. His father was a singing teacher and his mother, a gifted pianist. In this artistic family, Georges flourished and displayed musical talent at a very early age. Considered a child prodigy, Georges entered the Paris Conservatory of Music at the age of 9. There he studied counterpoint with Charles Gounod and composition with Jacques Halevy and developed into a brilliant pianist. His talents as a composer were also evident in the many small songs, piano pieces and orchestral works he composed while at the Conservatory. Most notable of these early compositions was his Symphony in C which he completed in 1855. At 19, Georges won the Grand Prix de Rome and began a happy (and financially secure) three year stay in Rome.
In 1860, Georges returned to Paris but refused all offers of teaching and a career as a concert pianist. Instead, he dedicated himself to composition. Early into his return to Paris, Georges‘ mother died. Georges consoled himself with his parents‘ maid, with whom he had a son in 1862. The Opera-Comique was rehearsing his one-act La guzla de l‘emir which was eventually withdrawn when the Theatre-Lyrique director invited Bizet to compose Les pecheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). Bizet finished the opera in four months and it was produced in September 1863, but received an indifferent reception. Although the staging was a bit stiff, none could deny Bizet‘s brilliant scoring especially in the famous duet, Au fond du temple saint.
In 1865, Georges had a chance meeting on a train from Paris en route to the little village of Le Vesinet with a woman who may have been some of the inspiration for Carmen. Celeste Venard (nicknamed La Mogador) was quite a colorful character whose occupations included prostitution, dance hall escort, writer, stage director and equestrian to name a few. Celeste had purchased a home near Bizet‘s and on that fateful train ride, the two discovered they would be neighbors. At Bizet‘s suggestion, Celeste bought a piano and gave him the key to her home so he could compose in peace. In Celeste‘s memoirs, she insists that the relationship was purely platonic and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Celeste was now singing for her living in a cafe‘ and performed Ay Chiquita by a composer named Sebastian Yradier. Apparently Bizet liked Yradier‘s music as he borrowed a theme from Yradier‘s El Arregilito for the Habanera. Celeste and Georges‘ relationship ended fairly abruptly, perhaps because of the displeasure of his future in-laws, the Halevys.
In 1869, Georges married Genevieve Halevy (the daughter of Jacques Halevy). Their son, Jacques, was born in 1872. The marriage did not bring much happiness to Bizet. During this time, Bizet continued to compose with some of his works being met with modest success, including his incidental music for Alphonse Daudet‘s play L‘Arlesienne. The Bizets were poor and Georges had health problems and began battling with depression. He also worked on a one-act opera Djamileh which was completed in 1872. That opera met with little success but Bizet was finally convinced he had found his true operatic path. Djamileh did have one success and that was its impression on director Camille du Locle, the co-director of the Opera-Comique. He commissioned Bizet and librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy (his wife‘s cousin) to write Carmen.
The actual story of Carmen was taken from the 1846 Prosper Merimee novel of the same name. In Merimee‘s novel, Carmen is a rather brutal character without warmth or depth; a gypsy with a common-law husband (a rom) who Don Jose kills and eventually replaces. The novel is told from Don Jose‘s perspective (he is the narrator) and the reader sees his decline from honorable soldier to deserter, smuggler, and murderer. Micaela and Escamillo are rarely mentioned in the novel but Bizet and his librettists fleshed out their characters to balance the overpowering Carmen and Don Jose. The somewhat comical Dancairo and Remendado are classic Opera-Comique characters.
Bizet and his librettists began work in 1873 though problems began from the outset with outrage from Adolph de Leuven, the Opera-Comiques‘ other director. The Opera-Comique was a family theater where marriages were arranged, business was conducted and de Leuven felt it was an inappropriate story with its blatant sexuality and frank depiction of gypsy life. Bizet‘s librettists also sided with de Leuven and felt that material (as originally written) was too strong and they feared public outrage. A battle followed with de Leuven and the librettists on one side and Bizet, du Locle and the principal singers Paul Lherie (Don Jose) and Celestine Galli-Marie (Carmen) on the other. Du Locle, being a practical man, did want the ending changed to accommodate the family atmosphere. Lherie and Galli-Marie threatened to quit so du Locle backed down. Bizet, unhappy with the librettists version of the Habanera, re-wrote the lyrics thirteen times before he was satisfied.
The original version (with spoken dialogue) premiered on March 3, 1875 and met with a lukewarm response from the audience. Though not a failure (it ran for 45 more performances), Bizet felt that no one understood his work. Other musicians, however, recognized Bizet‘s brilliance with praise from Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Gounod, Debussy, Grieg, Puccini, Frederick Nietzsche (‘a perfect antidote to Wagnerian neurosis‘) and Richard Wagner (‘At last. Some one with new ideas.‘)
Bizet died on June 3, 1875 three months after Carmen‘s premiere. Many have speculated that his premature death was due to his despondence over the perceived failure of Carmen. While this depression probably did not improve his already failing health, Bizet had long suffered from throat problems and the official medical cause of death was a failed heart due to ‘acute articular rheumatism‘.
It is unfortunate that Bizet didn‘t live long enough to see Tchaikovsky‘s prediction that Carmen would become ‘the most popular opera in the repertory‘ come true. Carmen has indeed fulfilled the prediction and more with its commercial success in Hollywood with the movie version Carmen Jones featuring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte as well as becoming the score for The Bad News Bears and hundreds of commercials. The melodies in the Habanera, Seguidilla and the Toreador Song are pervasive, exotic and unforgettable and even 125 years after its premiere, Carmen still captivates audiences and is one of the most produced operas in the world.