Carmen is one of the most popular Operas in existence, but it doesn’t really follow the standard Operatic format. It was an ‘Opera Comique’, one of the many Opera-lite subgenres that forsaged the existence of the Broadway musical, and it features relatively simple song structures and melodies for an ‘Opera’, as well as a fair amount of spoken dialogue (in the more authentic productions, anyway; many productions use recitative written by another composer after the actual composer’s death, but that practice has become increasingly frowned on in recent years). This is a large part of why this piece was even a success on Broadway back in the 1940s, albeit in an English translation and an updated setting, under the title Carmen Jones.
Carmen differs from other operas in more than just its structure. For one, it is a totally unsentimental work, with characters that seem to invite fascination rather than emotional involvement. Carmen is certainly a fascinating figure, strong-willed, complex, and utterly fearless, but she’s also a cold-hearted, manipulative maneater who pursues her own pleasure without really caring who she hurts. Her short-lived love interest Don Jose is even more unsympathetic…he comes across as a pathetic weakling who allows his obsession with Carmen to destroy both their lives, and the fact that he ultimately kills the person he claims to love makes his ‘love’ for her come across as more of a twisted obsession than actual love.
Granted, he wasn’t the first operatic Tenor character to wind up coming off this way, but the difference here is that the effect appears to be intentional, making Don Jose something of a deconstruction of the standard Operatic leading man. And the only other characters of any consequence are the insipid ingenue Micaela and the obnoxiously egotistical toreador Escamillo, leaving this as an Opera entirely without conventionally sympathetic characters. This is not especially uncommon in later operas (the Modernist era produced so many works in that vein that they almost became a cliche), but the only example I can think of prior to Carmen was The Coronation of Poppea, and that was back at the very first inception of the operatic form.
Carmen is also one of the most erotic operas in the repertoire, with the famous “Habanera” and “Seguidilla” arias ranking as two of the most enticing songs of seduction in all of opera. But what was most influential about Carmen was its dramatic naturalism. The material is rawer and earthier than the vast majority of Operas until that point in history, with a tone of gritty realism that seemed gigantically groundbreaking at the time for the stylized, florid field of Opera. In any previous opera, a Prima Donna who was stabbed would have sung a five-minute aria before expiring, but when Carmen is stabbed, she simply screams and collapses. These stylistic innovations would be picked up by Italian opera composers such as Puccini, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo, who would give them the name verismo (roughly translating to “truth-ism”), but it was this seemingly lightweight French quasi-operetta that really broke the necessary ground.
That said, the biggest reason Carmen has remained such a staple of the operatic repertoire has little or nothing to do with all those innovations. This is, quite simply, probably the most tuneful Opera ever written (its only conceivable competitor for that title being Verdi’s Il Trovatore). At least three of the tunes (the Habanera, the Toreador Song, and the theme that opens the Overture) are in the category of Classical tunes that even people who never listen to Classical Music will instantly recognize, and several of the other tunes come close to that status as well. The music makes occasional concessions to its Spanish setting, such as the use of Spanish dance styles like the Habanera and Seguidilla, but most of it pretty much sounds like the French composition it actually is. That said, with a score this magnificent, no-one has ever been inclined to complain.
Ironically, the first production of Carmen was a disastrous flop, and the composer, Georges Bizet, died in despair two months after the premiere, thinking what he rightly saw as his magnum opus had been rejected by the world. But if he had just survived a few months longer, he would have seen it take the world by storm…it only took about six months from the date of its premiere for the world to come to their senses and realize this was a world-changing masterpiece. In any event, for all the reasons I’ve listed and more, this is one of the greatest pieces of music theater of any kind ever written, and given that it is highly accessible even to those largely uninitiated with opera, anyone who has any interest in the theatrical and dramatic use of music should be familiar with it.