Today, it is one of the most popular operas in the standard repertoire, but Georges Bizet’s Carmen faced many obstacles in even reaching the stage, let alone becoming a success. With a libretto based on a story that many considered too salacious for public performance, Carmen was roundly denounced as immoral by critics even before its score had been completed. The title role was rejected by nearly every female performer considered for the part, and the head of the theater in which the opera was to be staged pressured Georges Bizet for rewrites out of fear of financial calamity should the production prove a flop. Bizet himself did not live long enough to see Carmen gain acceptance as an operatic masterwork. He died of a heart attack at the age of 36, just three short months after Carmen had its world premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on March 3, 1875.
The controversy that surrounded the debut of Carmen stemmed from its plot, which was drawn from the 1845 novel of the same name by Prosper Mérimée. In the adaptation for Bizet’s opera, Carmen is a wild and beautiful young gypsy girl who is working at a cigarette factory in Seville, Spain, when she captures the attention of a young army corporal named Don José. Though engaged to be married to the sweet and simple country girl Micaëla, Don José is seduced by the exotic Carmen in Act I, imprisoned for helping her escape the police in Act II and ensnared in a smuggling plot after deserting the army over her in Act III. None of which might have raised an eyebrow among 19th-century opera fans if weren’t for the events that follow in Act IV, when Carmen throws Don José over for the glamorous bullfighter Escamillo, inciting a jealous rage in Don José that culminates in his fatally stabbing Carmen outside the bullring in Seville.
It was this bloody storyline that caused an uproar within the critical establishment and within the leadership of the Opéra-Comique, which was known for somewhat more family-friendly productions. Even in the face of this controversy, Bizet refused to change the offending plot-points, and the mezzo-soprano Galli-Marié finally agreed to play Carmen. While audience and critical reaction to Carmen was decidedly mixed following its debut on this day in 1875, the opera won important admirers in Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky before the year was over. Georges Bizet, however, died on June 3, 1875, after only 30 public performances of his most important work.