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Paper 11: Elective History 2 (ii) Carmen in Context

Aims and objectives

This course will explore one of the major works of the operatic canon from a wide variety of perspectives; in doing so, it will draw on some of the major critical approaches to, and issues within, the field of opera studies.

Description of the course

The premiere of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875, is one of the most famous failures in operatic history. The depiction of a cigarette-smoking, freedom-loving, skirt-swishing heroine on a bourgeois, family-friendly, stage, proved too much for many critics, who lashed out against the production in strikingly hostile reviews. Following this inauspicious start, however, Carmen went on to enjoy extraordinary success, with a bibliography, discography, filmography, and performance history, to match. The particularly rich body of discourse surrounding Carmen makes it an ideal case study through which to explore the complicated network of forces that create and shape operas, their shifting meanings, and their afterlives. This course will thus approach Carmen from multiple angles, beginning with an investigation of the opera’s genesis, its relationship to the novella on which it is based, and the role of the performers in the work’s realisation. Carmen’s place in the broader history of French opera and how it related to contemporary operatic conventions, particularly in terms of genre, will also be considered. Emphasis will be placed on the social, political and cultural contexts of Carmen’s creation: in particular the ways in which the opera engaged with some of the key themes of the time, including race, class, gender, orientalism, and national identity. To what extent did these contexts affect the conception, complex reception history, and legacy of Bizet’s opera? Finally, we will examine a selection of the opera’s later stage and film incarnations.

Lecturer: Delphine Mordey

Study Music at Cambridge