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An Operatic Blockbuster: Bizet's '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 Georges Bizet's blockbuster, Carmen.

For one thing, Carmen may have more hit tunes than any opera ever composed. Even 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 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 unexpected 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 from Houston Grand Opera, featuring a stunning performance by Beatrice Uria-Monzon in the title role.

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

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