What’s so special about Carmen?
For one, the truly great music. Carmen is magical melody after magical melody. As for the orchestration, this is what Richard Strauss had to say:
“If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and every rest is in its proper place!”
Carmen also has a great story that is wonderfully presented. As the Wikipedia article points out, Carmen is extremely innovative in its drama: it alternates comic or sentimental scenes found traditionally in opera-comique with stark realism.
Yet, there is something beyond music or drama that lies at the heart of Carmen’s appeal to me. It is easy to distinguish good art; beyond that, things get very personal. The truly special works of art are those with qualities that talk to you, touch you, in ways that separate them fundamentally from others. Obviously, this aspect is highly subjective; this is why people usually disagree on their favourite movie or piece of music even when they mostly agree on which movie or music is good.
The opera Carmen epitomizes liberty. The character Carmen is relentless in her passion for freedom. She is strong, extremely sexy and gives everything in her relationships with her lovers. However, she can never be possessed or exorcised of her passionate love for self-determination. For Carmen, all true interactions are voluntary and devoid of any notion of ownership of another person or duty to any institution.
Carmen is willing to live life only on her own terms. As this book correctly points out, Carmen is “brash, vicious and callous”, yet the quality that defines her over and above all this is “her willingness to be Carmen, a determination to be free and follow her own bliss.” Carmen never gives up her “tireless obsession to control her own destiny.” And this extends beyond mere action, it is a fundamental part of her morality. In the final scene, even when Carmen knows that she will die she refuses to compromise on her principles, instead she courageously faces her fate. Her death is not a dessert for her sins but a consequence of her essential nobility in an ignoble world; her refusal to give up her self-ownership to another person.
(Of course, early audiences and critics did not view it the same way. Carmen was universally denounced as a vile, immoral, shockingly offensive creation. Times have changed — modern audiences would undoubtedly be more sympathetic to my vision of Carmen as a flawed but heroic character murdered by a jealous man who is her moral and emotional inferior. That’s another aspect of all great art, like life they have many contradictory interpretations.)
It is these thematic elements of Carmen that, for me, lift it from a great opera to something far more special. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology, Carmen talks to me in that special way that is both infinitely subtle and passionately stirring. It will forever be a part of my heart.
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