SUBJECTS — Music/Opera; World/France;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Romantic Relationships;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility.

Metropolitan Opera Version: Age: 12+; No MPAA Rating; Opera; 1989; 104 minutes; Color; In French with English subtitles; Available from

1984 Version: Age: 14+; PG; Opera; 1984; 152 minutes; Color; In French with English subtitles; Available from

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Both of these films present Bizet’s classic story of love and betrayal.


Metropolitan Opera Version:

Selected Awards: None.

Featured Performers: Ages Baltsa, Jose Carreras, and Leona Mitchel.

Director: Brian Large.

Orchestra: The Metropolitan Opera conducted by James Levine.


1984 Version:

Selected Awards: 1985 British Academy Awards: Best Foreign Film; 1985 César Awards: Best Sound; 1985 Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Foreign Film; 1985 British Academy Awards Nominations: Best Sound; Best Score; 1985 César Awards Nominations: Best Director (Rosi).

Featured Performers: Julia Migenes, Plácido Domingo Ruggero Raimondi.

Director: Francesco Rosi.

Orchestra: Ochrestre National de France conducted by Lorin Maazel.


“Carmen” is one of the most beautiful and popular operas ever written. Children will benefit from working through the issues presented in this timeless story of love, the surrender of judgment to passion, and the betrayal of that surrender. “Carmen” is a classic which is frequently referred to in print and film. The music is matchless.


The 1989 Metropolitan Opera version poses no problems, but some of Carmen’s sexually provocative movements in the 1984 version make it unsuitable for children below the age of 14, despite the film’s PG rating. For those opposed to the sport of bullfighting, the 1984 version may be disturbing. Parents may want to engage children in discussion about bullfighting, see helpful Background section below.


Ask and answer the Quick Discussion Question. Talk about any other points in the film that might interest your child.


The History of Carmen:

The Opera is set in the year 1820, in Seville, Spain. Carmen is written in French but incorporates the flavor of Spain. Carmen is an “opera comique” which contains spoken dialogue between the songs.

Commissioned for the Opera-Comique in Paris, Carmen was initially labeled as “immoral” when it was first performed in 1875. An official of the Opera-Comique worried that no audience would see such a “debauched” opera. One of the directors of the Opera-Comique protested:

Isn’t [Carmen] killed by her lover? — And that background of thieves, gypsies, cigar-makers — At the Opéra-Comique, a family theatre! The theatre where marriages are arranged! Every night five or six boxes are taken for that purpose. You will frighten off our audience — It’s impossible. Bizet and His World by Mina Curtiss, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1958, p. 351.

The producers pressuring Bizet to alter the tragic ending, but he resisted. Ibid at 383.

The premiere itself did not go particularly well, and the reviews of both critics and the audience did not reflect the opera’s later popularity and critical acclaim. See New York City Opera Project: Carmen: Critical Reception. Bizet died soon after its first short run never knowing how universally loved this opera would be. In fact, the opera was performed only 48 times the first year: a far cry from modern day, where it is currently listed by OPERA America as the number one most produced opera in the 2000-2001 season.

The Characters:

The characters in Carmen brought a new dimension to operatic characters.

Don Jose: Once a loyal soldier and faithful lover to his childhood sweetheart, Mercedes, Don Jose, succumb to an uncontrollable passion for Carmen. He gives up everything for her: his career in the army; his good name; his family; and Mercedes. However, Carmen is still not faithful. Consumed by jealousy, he kills her.

Carmen: Carmen is a complex and fascinating character. It has been said that her character has so many facets that each different actress who plays the role is able to give the character a distinctive interpretation. Carmen has been described as “willful, capricious, sensuous … and eternally fascinating.” Melbourne Opera, Notes to Carmen. Carmen is not a self-destructive figure…she does not chase men; they chase her. “She is fatalistic and hedonistic, living entirely in the present moment. Her beauty unintentionally entraps men, who are then led to their downfall by their own misguided ideas of love. Carmen’s character is best illustrated in the card-playing scene, in which she accepts the premonition of death as unavoidable.” Webster’s Online Dictionary – Extended Definition of Carmen.

Carmen and Don Jose have three duets, each of which represents a stage of their relationship: seduction, conflict, and tragic resolution. By not singing the duets in the typical French or Italian style (where the two singers merge their voices together), Bizet is able to demonstrate the incompatibility of their relationship.


Bullfights are historic entertainment in Spain. Many people find them to be grotesque barbaric rituals in which bulls are tortured and then killed. In 2010, Catalonia, a section of Spain banned bullfights.

A bullfight is held in a large arena. The animal is first enraged by the picadors and then a tendon in his neck is cut so that he cannot completely raise his head. Otherwise, the Matadors would get gored too frequently. After the picadors have injured the bull, the matador enters the ring and taunts the bull with a red cape. The most popular matadors perform their cape work with great grace and skill, permitting the bull to come close to them but not to injure them. After the passes with the cape, three banderilleros thrust decorated wooden barbs into the bull’s back, further injuring the animal and preparing him for the matador’s sword. Finally, the matador comes back at the bull with more graceful and daring cape work. He eventually kills the bull with a sword thrust between the bull’s shoulders. The ultimate question in a bullfight is whether the bull, weakened as he is, will be able to gore the matador before the bull is killed.

Aficionados (the name for people who love bullfights) appreciate the style with which the matador confronts the bull. They also savor the style with which the bull confronts his death. In the first and the last, bullfight seen by the authors, the bull was valiant. But he was so scared that he urinated most of the time he was in the ring. It left us feeling complicit in the torture and killing of an innocent animal.

France and Spain:

The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1820-1823, ending with the Battle of Trocadero. Royalists and liberals fought against each other, with France assisting the royalists. The war itself started after a new constitution, looking to replace absolute monarchism with a constitutional monarchy, was rejected by Ferdinand VII. This forced increasingly dissatisfied soldiers, citizens, and revolutionaries, to take action.

The Battle of Trocadero occurred in 1823, and with the help of the French, the royalists were able to subdue the rebels. Backtracking on his promises of amnesty for the revolutionaries, Ferdinand sought revenge for the uprising and his imprisonment and ruled with a ruthless hand.



Don Jose deserted the army and abandoned his own ideals. What led him to do that?

Suggested Response:

He allowed his passion to blind his judgment.

1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

2. What were French soldiers doing in Spain?

Suggested Response:

They were remnants of the French invasion of Spain that occurred in 1823. This invasion, called the Battle of Trocadero, ended the Spanish Civil War which has begun in 1820. Carmen is set in Seville, Spain in 1830.

3. What is the role of bullfighting in Spain? Should it be banned? Which holds more value: cultural traditions or respect for animals?

Suggested Response:

Bullfighting in Spain is a tradition that dates back for centuries. Many consider it part of the Spanish culture, alluring for both Spaniards and tourists. It is considered by many who love the “sport” to be beautiful, symbolic and an ongoing custom in Spanish culture. This topic would be a great debate issue. A student could debate the issue in pairs, or individually in an essay. Have them research the role of bullfighting in Spain, traditions in other cultures that have changed due to fluctuating tastes and tolerances in societies, and have them read essays about maintaining cultures in an increasingly homogenized world.

4. Before Carmen was ever even performed, people were pressuring Bizet to change the tragic ending. What would have happened to the story if there were no tragic ending?

Suggested Response:

The entire point of the opera would have changed. There would be no lessons about the dangers of unrestrained passion, people blinded by lust and the balance between power and responsibility. Had Carmen not died, it would have affirmed both her and Don Jose’s choices.

5. What are hedonism and fatalism? How are these traits portrayed in Carmen?

Suggested Response:

Merriam Webster defines hedonism as “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life” and fatalism as “a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them”. The character of Carmen embodies both of these characteristics, in that she is devoted to feeling good, and places her own wants and desires before anyone else’s. She is fatalistic in that she doesn’t believe that she can take control of her, or any of her fallen lovers’, situation (or at least she doesn’t bother to try). Carmen influences others to live in a similar way; Don Jose succumbs to the pressure of passion when Carmen goes off with Escamillo. Ask students to list other literary examples of hedonistic or fatalistic characters, and compare and contrast them to Carmen. This makes a good essay topic.



1. What would you do if you felt a strong attraction to another person who encouraged you to abandon your family or to do something that you knew was wrong?

Suggested Response:

There is no one specific answer, but a good discussion can come out of the debate over following your head versus following your heart. Talk about the power of infatuation and how that can have an influence on the decisions people make. Talk about personal responsibility: to yourself, to your family and to your friends.

2. Lead your class through the following scenario: a beautiful or handsome person arrives at your school, whom everyone adores. He or she approaches them and befriends them. They get to know each other, and the student thinks perhaps that this is love. The student begins to blindly follow this new person, becoming more entranced each day. One day, the new person asks the student to do something wrong or dangerous, something that could hurt another student, or even themselves. The student must make a decision: stay with this new person, or leave. What does Carmen tell us about this situation?

Suggested Response:

Solicit a variety of answers from students, but look for ones that carry the thread of “follow your head, not your heart”. When someone is willing to put you, or other people, in danger, they don’t truly care about you or your wellbeing. Infatuation is different than love, and passion and obsession can easily blind people (young and old) to the true nature of a relationship. Encourage students to choose friends and romantic interests wisely, and to listen if their friends try to tell them that a relationship has negatively changed them.

3. What should Don Jose have done when Carmen asked him to help her escape from jail?

Suggested Response:

In a perfect world, he should’ve refused. But he was blind with lust and love and couldn’t stop following his heart. Just because you are in love doesn’t give you a free pass to act improperly.

4. Explain the role in this story of passion and its affect on judgment.

Suggested Response:

In Carmen, passion blinds one’s judgment, making them act impetuously and without proper forethought.

5. What was Don Jose’s mistake in this opera?

Suggested Response:

He acted without thinking and allowed himself to be swept away by Carmen. He abandoned the life and the responsibilities he had and acted selfishly and foolishly.

6. What, if anything, do you think Carmen felt for Don Jose?

Suggested Response:

She probably felt the same thing she felt for the many other men who were attracted to her. She felt empowered by their lust and infatuation. And it didn’t really matter who the lust came from. The complexity of Carmen was that she didn’t chase the men: they chased her. What she did with that power was irresponsible, and in the end, she suffered death because of her careless attitude toward breaking hearts.

7. Carmen attracted many men. Why was this?

Suggested Response:

There can be many answers: her beauty, her confidence, her sexuality, her power, the way she carried herself.

8. Carmen is a dangerous character. What role does this play in her ability to attract men?

Suggested Response:

Her danger can be seen as exotic, which is sometimes considered to be attractive to men. She is different than the normal women, and there’s something alluring about that. Many people find themselves attracted to “dangerous” people because they can bring something new, exciting and challenging into their lives. Sometimes, however, this can end tragically.

9. Why did Don Jose stop loving Mercedes? Is there a reason?

Suggested Response:

This is a good topic for class discussion. The main reason was Carmen. But the fact that Don Jose could almost instantly stop loving a very important woman in his life says something about him, as well, and their relationship.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)

1. Does Don Jose’s love for Carmen excuse his actions in allowing Carmen to escape?

Suggested Response:

Is love a good enough reason for disobeying the law? This makes for an interesting class discussion. Talk about some famous examples of love vs. law (crimes of passion, etc). Talk about the power of love and how situations like this are often very romanticized. Have different students take opposite sides and debate.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

(See questions under Romantic Relationships section.)


The opera is based on a short story by Prosper Mérimée.



Absolute monarchy, Battle of Trocadero, bullfight, constitutional monarchy, corporal, Ferdinand VII, gypsy, libretto, lieutenant, matador, mezzo-soprano, “opera comique”, soprano, Toreador.



The articles about Bizet and His World by Mina Curtiss, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1958, p. 351. George Bizet’s Carmen, by Susan McClary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Last updated July 23, 2013.

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