Carmen on Stage, Film, and Ice: A Little History

by Ivy Duerr

Most of those here tonight know that Carmen Jones is an adaptation of Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen, but fewer people know that even the opera with which we’re all familiar was an adaptation. Bizet took the story of Carmen from the 1846 novella by Prosper Mèrimèe, who had been inspired by a visit to Spain in 1830, and a particular story told to him by his friend the Countess of Montijo about a man who had killed his mistress in a fit of jealousy. Bizet took the story for his opera from only part three of the novella, which was much more a reflection on Romani life in Spain than the passionate and deadly romance on which Bizet wished to lavish his considerable musical talents. In 1875 when the opera debuted in Paris, such explicit onstage depictions of lawlessness and immorality, not to mention the onstage death of the story’s heroine, shocked and scandalized many in the audience. Carmen was a story too sensual for its time, and Bizet wouldn’t live to see the wild success his opera would become. Like many controversial things, the opera found a home among American audiences. Carmen came to America in 1878, debuting at the New York Academy of Music. Performed at the Met for the first time in 1884, by 2011, Carmen had been performed there almost 1,000 times.

It is only to be expected that other artists would find themselves inspired by such a beautiful and scandalous piece of art. The Carmen Suite was a 1967 ballet created by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso with a more modern interpretation of the original music composed by Rodion Shchedrin. Shchedrin, a Russian composer, created a new interpretation of Bizet’s original music, an adaptation he wrote specifically for his wife, the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, as she danced the titular role in the ballet’s premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Plisetskaya was the one who originated the idea for the ballet in 1964, originally asking composer Dmitri Shostakovich to write the music for a ballet version of Carmen. He flatly refused. She then went to Aram Khachaturian, who also refused and recommended that she ask her husband. Two years later, when the Ballet Nacional de Cuba performed in Moscow for its Soviet tour, she asked Alonso to choreograph the ballet. He choreographed with dancers in Cuba before flying to Russia to teach the work to Plisetskaya. Shchedrin was at first asked to create original music for the ballet, but he was unable to get the notes of Bizet’s famous opera out of his head, and so he decided to take his inspiration from Bizet’s work, referring to his borrowing from the original as “a creative meeting of the minds.” The Carmen Suite was banned by the Soviet hierarchy, on the grounds that the modern interpretation was disrespectful to the original. However, the modern adaptation of Bizet’s work, which included an array of percussion instruments and plenty of special effects from the strings, was wildly popular and The Carmen Suite remains Shchedrin’s best known work.

Another dance interpretation of Bizet’s work is the 1990 German figure skating film Carmen on Ice. A new arrangement of Bizet’s original music was composed for this film, and Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt (who had just won her second Olympic gold medal while skating to Carmen) played the role of the heroine. Brian Boitano played the part of Don Jose, and won a gold medal in figure skating the same year as Witt, and the part of Escamillo was played by that year’s silver medalist, Brian Orser. In other words, Carmen on Ice had an all-star cast. Sandra Bezic and Michael Seibert (both famous figure skaters) choreographed for the film, and were influenced by both traditional ballet and flamenco. During rehearsals, Cristina Hoyos, an esteemed flamenco dancer, coached the skaters to help them incorporate important elements of the Spanish dance into the choreography. Filmed on location in Spain and Germany, locals from Berlin and Seville played bit parts, and entire sets in the Seville were iced over to allow the skaters to perform on the set. This film has no spoken dialogue which makes it an innovation in the history of figure skating. Carmen on Ice won an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Classical Music or Dance Program, which was shared between Witt, Boitano, and Orser.

In Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II adapts Bizet’s work for Broadway, making excellent use of a World War II-era setting and an African American cast.The 1954 film adaptation of Hammerstein’s musical starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte and won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy category. Hammerstein’s adaptation, however, is far from the most modern adaptation today. In 2001, Beyonce made her acting debut in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, in which she played the titular role and most of the original music was replaced by a hip-hop/R&B score. Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Beyonce’s Carmen is updated from cigarette factory worker to aspiring actress. Since then, the world has seen even more adaptations of Carmen, including an Indian adaptation (Bollywood Carmen) Senegalese adaptation (Karmen Gei) and a South African adaptation (U-Carmen).

Like the stories of Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, the story of the beautiful but tragic Carmen is one that resonates through the barriers of language, time, and culture. Whether we berate her for her behavior, love her for her sensuality, or see ourselves in her or in those who are seduced by her and betrayed by her, Carmen in all of her adapted forms remains wildly relevant to audiences today. We hope you enjoy CSC’s production of Carmen Jones, and see for yourself the resonance of a story that is almost two hundred years old, yet in its constant retellings remains ageless.