The roots of opera could be traced back to the late 16th century when it appeared as a unique form of art where the words and music interaction were combined. In fact, opera can be defined as a “a dramatic action performed on a stage with scenery by actors in costume, the words conveyed entirely or for the most part of singing and the whole sustained and amplified by orchestral music” (Grout and Williams, 2003, p.1). Long before the advent of the opera, the stage saw music and theatrical performances that had been firmly predetermined by political and social events taken simultaneously. This cohesive connection of politics and social life greatly influenced entertainments adopted in the 16th century. Casting the light on the preconditions of opera emergence provokes it is false to consider opera as an independent and new phenomenon in the art of performance. Therefore, one cannot deny that opera derives from the spoken drama, since numerous well-known operas are based on literary texts.
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Initially, most of the librettos written for opera were based on the literary work (novels, story, or poem) or theatrical work (play or ballet) (Randel, 2003, p. 461). There are operas where the text was borrowed from a play or a novel was displayed unchanged on the stage. However, due to the emergence of new social and political conditions, the librettists were striving to focus on the target audience for the opera to be successful. At that time, theatrical art depended on the preferences of the audience attending the performances. Further, the necessity to change the text of an original literary work was predetermined by the necessity to conquer the attention of the broader public, as this was the key to the success of opera. Therefore, the changes to the literary work were made in case the one had been a failure in the past. Nevertheless, the composer decided to set the text, as it revealed the interests and problems of nineteenth century society. In this respect, the task of a librettist lied in seeking fresh insights that would attract the audience (Glixon and Glixon, 2006 p. 316). Apart from all this, the alteration also took place due to the specific multimedia characteristics of opera as such. These characteristics and current conditions explain why the novel of Carmen by Merimee was adjusted and was altered for the opera set by Bizet.
The Emergence of Libretto and its Relation to Music and Opera
An opera is “based on” a subject, a libretto is the entire text, as they are sung in the work. In the 19th century as well as in other periods of operatic art, the works of well-known poets were used as libretto. Many composers used dramatic works for their operas and tried to convey drama through music (Kerman, 1988, p. 5). Definitely, initial works had to be transformed a little, shortened in order to meet the goals that a composer was pursuing.
It should be noted that not all composers used written poems for making their operas. Some composers preferred to write some pieces of music first and then find a librettist who would add words. Other composers like Richard Wagner used to do both tasks – they wrote a libretto and music. Finally, some composers preferred to collaborate closely with librettists. Composers wrote music and librettists a libretto parallel (Dolmetsch Organization, 2010). Good.
The Novel Carmen by Prosper Merimee
The Significance of the Novel for the Opera
For most of the viewers and connoisseurs of literature, Carmen is known as an undying novel about the tragic love and pride of Gypsies. The novel was published and brought to public in the second half of the eighteenth century. In order to understand the differences and changes of the original text and libretto, it is reasonable to analyze the main idea of the novel. In Carmen, the author tries to explore the character and ethnicity of Gypsies, their life and moral principles. While describing different events and protagonists, he reveals the habits and tradition of these people as well as the stereotypes emerged in this context. Each of the chapters is a brief overview of Spanish culture. Viewing the style of writing and the infiltration of detailed descriptions of the scenes in the novel were the main preconditions for the conversion of Merimee’s work into the opera. A particular consideration deserves the exhaustive description of the main heroine:
She was wearing a very short red skirt which gave a glimpse of her white silk stockings which had more than one hole in them and was wearing cute little Moroccan leather shoes laced up with flame-coloured red ribbons …She still has the cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, and she walked, swaying her hips like a prize filly from a Cordova stud-farm (Merimee, 2005, p. 31).
The lines describing Carmen for the first time can be also perfectly included into the opera. In whole, viewing the entire text of the novel, it is possible to find a plethora of details providing the possibility of their interpreting at the stage.
Further contextual studies of the text reveal the general ideas that are conveyed by the author. In particular, Merimee is much concerned with legends and mythology of gypsies, which are explicitly represented in the fourth chapter of the novel. Due to the idea that the author makes use of a great number of sources in his literary work, it contains numerous accounts on gypsy habits and rites, their characters and appearance. Therefore, the descriptive nature of the text allows considering it as the appropriate blueprint for libretto (Kelly et al., 2007, p. 87). In general, the original text consists of four parts and involves the participation of the author in the adventure described in the book. Merimee’s novel has not much perceived literary context; instead, Carmen is commonly recognized as an exaggerated embodiment of melodrama. The only thing she values is freedom and love; her image and character have nothing to add, as this is an ideal representation of a real Roma. This is why the heroine can be taken as the real and original figure for opera. Merimee’s Carmen is an eccentric and charismatic creature; the author often compares her with a devil that uses her powers to achieve her goals. Her complicated character revealed through implicit and explicit descriptions provides numerous possibilities for the creation of operatic heroine.
Apart from social conditions influencing the alterations imposed on the original texts, the changes also took place for providing opportunities for musical numbers and for modifying the realistic tendencies of Merimee’s novel. It should be admitted that the first performance was not that successful as in their subsequent performances, since the play was recognized as immoral and inappropriate for the broad public. Being presented in Paris for the first time it was initially meant as “opera comique” – “an opera with musical numbers separated by spoken dialogue”. (Osborne, 2007, p. 49) In whole, the major change that occurs in the opera is the moral and ideational reevaluation of the original where the main heroine is perceived as strong character with her own principles and moral prejudices.
Having analyzed the original text of Merimee’s Carmen, it should be stressed that Bizet’s opera is more focused on the third part of the novel, the one which is more dramatic and emotional. Besides, there are differences between the novel and the opera. First of all Carmen here is depicted as a free woman. Furthermore, the author also inserts the new character, Michaela, who correspond to Jose’s hero. Her role in the opera is to embed the psychological environment and the female opposition to Carmen. Hence, Micala serves as a contrast to Carmen; she only emphasizes the eccentricity of the protagonist. Even the musical accompaniment of the first appearance of Micaela is chromatic and slippery. Bizet, therefore, tries to make libretto more expressive and accentuate the exceptional role of two personages – Carmen and Jose Navarro. Addressing the libretto, the novel is adapted by Meilhac and Halevy, a well-known team of librettists. In cooperation with Bizet, the opera Carmen has become the most admired and called for opera of the late nineteenth century (Florence and Reynolds, 1995, p. 114). The first performances on the stage were highly criticized by the public thus offending the nineteenth century bourgeois class since the heroine was a gypsy whose values and moral norms contradicted the tenets of that time. Thus, the novelistic heroine was not ready to make sacrifices for the sake of her honor and for the sake of her beloved, which was inacceptable for the public. Therefore, the public see the opera as a kind of fable where the wicked heroine should be punished by Don Jose. In order to change the negative connotation of the opera, Carmen was represented in the feministic light where the main heroine provided a positive moral example to the ladies from the upper classes. A special consideration requires the scenes when Carmen dances for Jose to detach his attention from the struggle and persuade him to escape with her. This scene is emphasized in the opera as it involves the musical illustration contributing to a brighter representation of the main heroes and their feelings.
Another difference between libretto and original texts lies in the different representation of the characters. For instance, there an extreme increase of roles of other heroes, like the Dancaire and Remendado, which of minor importance in the original novel. Then, Remendado, the leaders of robbers, also paid much attention. Lucas and Escamillo, Carmen’s affections, can be noticed only in bullring in the novel. Escamillo is also an important figure in the opera, as he serves as an antagonist to Don Jose. The denouement appears in the third act, the time of the triangles: Micaela loves Don Jose who has affection for Carment, whereas Escamillo is in love with Carmen who is indifferent to Don Jose. This act ends with the duel, which is accompanied by a musical composition. During the knight-fight, Escamillo fights furiously and desperately. The scene, thus, is more important and inspiring, expressing passion and love as the main values to fight for. Judging from this operatic representation, Bizet’s and the group of librettists decide to pay a particular attention to the relation between Carmen and her admirers. In this story, an accent is made on the description of characters and habits of the Roma people. The considerable change occurred to the text is, therefore, predetermined by social and political moods among people who were more concerned with moral problems but not with spiritual and cultural ones.
Drawing a conclusion, one cannot but admit that Carmen is first of all perceived as the opera but not as novel and this is determined by specific needs of current society. However, the changes imposed on the story were also presupposed by the necessity to adapt the text to specific multimedia characteristics of the opera. Anyway, the original text played an important role in the creation of the operatic heroine and her exceptional features. In addition, this particular example proves that the nineteenth century opera originated from literary sources. Still, the operatic variant of Carmen still captures the attention of the contemporary audience. Finally, viewing the changes included into the libretto, opera is more character oriented, it pays more attention to a psychological depiction of heroes accompanied by music. The appearance of new characters also serves to single out the features of the protagonists as well.
Florence, P., and Reynolds, D. (1995). Feminist subjects, multi-media: cultural methodologies. UK: Manchester University Press ND.
Glixon, B. L., and Glixon, J. (2006). Inventing the business of opera: the impresario and his world in seventeenth-century Venice. UK: Oxford University Press.
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Grout, D. J., and Williams, H. W. (2003). A short history of opera. US: Columbia University Press.
Kelly, B. L., Murphy, K., and Lesure, F. (2007). Berlioz and Debussy: sources, contexts and legacies: essays in honour of Francois Lesure. US: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Kerman J. (1988). Opera as Drama. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
Libretto (2010). In Dolmetsch Organization. Web.
Merimee, P. (2005). Colomba and Carmen. US: Kessinger Publishing.
Osborne, C. (2007). The Opera Lover’s Companion. US: Yale University Press.
Randel, D. M. (2003). The Harvard dictionary of music. US: Harvard University Press.