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Bizet's Pop Culture 'Carmen'

Generally, opera isn't tossed into the vast pot of entertainment that's loosely defined as "popular" culture. But if there's one opera that does fit the pop culture bill, surely it's George Bizet's blockbuster, Carmen.

For one thing, Carmen may have more hit tunes than any opera ever composed. People who say they've never listened to a note of opera in their lives have probably heard something from Carmen, even if it was only in an elevator.

As for the opera's story, it showcases any number of elements that don't exactly mesh with opera's typical, highbrow image — proving that opera goers are attracted by the same sort of guilty pleasures that draw people to sensational TV shows, or lurid films.

Carmen herself, for example, easily falls into the same, femme fatale tradition that includes the murderous characters played by Sharon Stone and Glenn Close in the movies Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Early audiences were scandalized by Carmen's overt sexuality and her violent death, but they went to the opera anyway — in droves.

The opera's devotees also seem to ignore its unflattering and oversimplified portrayal of the Roma people, sometimes known as gypsies, just as fans of mafia stories put up with the stereotypes they often reinforce.

The popularity of Carmen was even helped by a real life tragedy, just as movies such as The Dark Knight and The Crow developed a special fascination for some after the untimely deaths of their stars, Heath Ledger and Brandon Lee. At a point when the long-term success of Carmen was still an open question, Bizet suddenly died. His admirers mourned, but lines at the ticket office promptly got longer — and the opera has been a hit ever since.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Carmen that raised more than a few eyebrows. It was the season-opener at one of the world's true, operatic hotbeds, La Scala in Milan, and the company caused a stir by casting a rising, but relatively inexperienced singer in the title role — the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili. She took the stage alongside veterans Jonas Kaufmann and Erwin Schrott, as Don José and Escamillo, and the entire cast got a rousing reception from a typically boisterous La Scala crowd.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.