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Opera Background

ComposerGeorges Bizet
LibrettistLudovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac
Language French
Date of PremierMarch 3, 1875
Number of ActsFour
Music Length Two Hours, Thirty-eight Minutes

Carmen is undoubtedly one of the most popular opera’s in the world. Certain musical numbers from Carmen (“Prelude”, “Habanera”, “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre”) are used in countless movies, commercials, and cartoons, yet many people can’t name the opera that it’s from!

Part of what makes Carmen so popular is how unconventional it is. It was so unconventional with it’s main role (Carmen) being so provocative with her dance and words that it initially was not favored by the general public. Unfortunately, Bizet would die shortly after the opera began productions, so never lived to see the enormous world-wide success the opera would become.

The story of Carmen is based on love, and involves jealousy, murder, and more,

Quick Answers

Is Carmen based on a true story?

Carmen is based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen, which was inspired by scandalous tales about the Roma people that the author heard while traveling in Spain.

What language is Carmen in?

Although Carmen is set in Spain, it is sung entirely in French

What is the main song from Carmen?

Arguably the most famous song of the opera Carmen is “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, more widely known as “Habanera” from Act 1. Also recognizable by most are “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre”, aka the “Toreador Song” and the instrumental “Prelude” that opens the the opera.

How long does a performance of Carmen last?

The performance of Carmen (with intermissions) normally runs around 3 hours and 20 minutes.

What is carmen singing about in habanera?

In Habanera, officially named “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, Carmen warns of the unpredictability of love. She also warns of love as it applies to herself, singing “If you do not love me, I love you; If I love you, beware!”


  • Carmen, a gypsy girl (mezzo-soprano)
  • Don José, a corporal (tenor)
  • Zuniga, a lieutenant (bass)
  • Micaëla, a village girl (soprano)
  • Le Dancaïre, a smuggler (baritone)
  • Le Remendado, a smuggler (tenor)
  • Mercédès, Carmen’s friend (mezzo-soprano)
  • Frasquita, Carmen’s friend (soprano)
  • Escamillo, bullfighter (bass-baritone)
  • Moralès, a corporal (Baritone)

Musical Numbers

  • Prelude (instrumental)

Musical Numbers – Act 1

  • “Sur la place” (Aria, Choir): Morales and the other soldiers watch passer-bys at the square
  • “Regardez donc cette petite” (Duet, Choir): Micaëla arrives searching for Don José
  • “Avec la garde montante” (Choir): Children mimic the guards as they change shifts
  • “Une jeune fille charmante”: Morales tells Don José a girl was looking for him
  • “C’est bien la, n’est-ce pas?”: Don José warns Zuniga of the factory girls and confesses his love for Micaëla
  • La cloche a sonné“: The cigarette worker women head out into the square, smoking cigarettes
  • “La voilà, La voilà”(Aria, Choir): Carmen arrives in the square
  • “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” – also known as “Habanera”(Aria): Carmen warns of the unpredictability of love
  • “Carmen, sur tes pas, nous nous pressons tous” (Duet, Choir): The men press Carmen to pick a man she loves
  • Parle-moi de ma mere” (Duet): Micaëla delivers a letter from Don José’s mother.
  • “Au secours!” (Aria, Choir): Women pour out of the factory arguing over a fight
  • “Tra la la ” (Duet, Choir): Carmen mocks Zuniga as he questions her
  • “Près des remparts de Séville” (Aria): Carmen sings a provocative Castilian folk song to Don José
  • “Voici l’ordre, parte“: Carmen devises a plan and makes her escape

Musical Numbers – Act 2

  • “Entr’acte” (Instrumental)
  • “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” (aria): Mercedes, Frasquita, and Mercédès entertain the taven guests
  • “Vivat! Vivat le torero!” (aria, choir): The crowd announces the arrival of Escamillo
  • “Votre toast je peux vous le rendre” – also known as “The Toreador Song”(aria): Escamillo sings of the glorious life of a bullfighter
  • “Nous avons en tête une affaire” (Quintet): Dancaïre and Remendado reveal their plan to smuggle
  • “Haite – la ! qui va la”: Done José arrives at the tavern
  • “Je vais danser en votre honneur” (duet): Carmen treats Don José to a private dance
  • “La fleur que tu m’avais jetee” – also known as “The Flower Song” (Aria): Don José tells how the flower given to him by Carmen helped him through his time in prison
  • Holà! Carmen!“: Zuniga arrives and fights with Don José
  • Bel “officier” (Quartet): A group of Carmen’s comrades confront Zuniga

Musical Numbers – Act 3

  • “Entr’acte” (Instrumental)
  • Écoute, écoute, compagnon(sextet, chorus): The group of smugglers cross a trecherous mountain pass
  • “Melons! coupons!” (trio): Frasquita, Mercédès, and Carmen take turns telling each other’s fortunes
  • “Quant au douanier c’est notre affaire”: The smugglers devise a plan to pass the customs officers
  • “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” (Aria): Micaëla walking through the mountains getting ready to confront Carmen
  • “Je suis Escamillo” (duet): Escamillo arrives and fights with Don José
  • “Hola! hola! Jose!” (quartet): Escamillo departs, inviting everybody to his bullfight in Seville
  • “Moi je viens te chercher!”: Micaëla pleads Don José to return home

Musical Numbers – Act 4

  • “Entr’acte” (Instrumental)
  • “A deux cuartos” (choir): The crowd prepares for the bullfight
  • Les voici! les voici! (choir): The crowd cheers at the arrival of the bullfighters
  • “Si tu m’aimes, Carmen” (duet, choir): Carmen and Escamillo declare their love for eachother
  • “C’est toi? C’est moi.” (duet, choir): Don José begs Carmen to take him back
  • “Où vas-tu? Laisse-moi.” (duet, choir): Don José makes one last desperate attempt to get Carmen to go with him

Carmen Full Synopsis

Full Synopsis – Act 1

Act one opens in a crowded town square. Morales and the other soldiers relax and watch the passer-bys (“Sur la place” – “At the Square”). The soldiers watch as Micaëla shows up, looking lost and anxious. Morales approaches her and asks what she is looking for. Micaëla tells them she is looking for Don José, who the guards say will arrive when they switch out with the night guard (“Regardez donc cette petite” – “Look at this little girl”). Morales begins to press Micaëla, telling her to come inside their house and not be afraid. They follow Micaëla as she goes, insisting she stays, but Micaëla runs away to leave the soldiers back to their people-watching.

“Regardez donc cette petite” performed live

Trumpets sound as the changing of the guards takes place. The new guards arrive, all the while being imitated by a choir of children (“Avec la garde montante” – “With rising guard”). Morales tells Don José that there was a girl looking for him (“Une jeune fille charmante” – “A charming girl”). Don José tells Zuniga of the cigarette factory next-door, and how the worker girls there are terribly feisty (“C’est bien la, n’est-ce pas?” – “It’s there, isn’t it?”). When asked if they’re pretty, Don José says he really wouldn’t know, as he isn’t very flirtatious, as he is already in love with Micaëla.

A bell rings signifying break time for the cigarette factory and the worker women head into the square, all lighting cigarettes. The guards (“La cloche a sonné” – “The bell rang”).

“La cloche a sonné” performed live

Carmen arrives on scene carrying a air of pure confidence (“La voilà, La voilà” – “Here she is, here she is”). The crowd asks Carmen to tell them when it is she will love them, to which she responds “maybe never, maybe tomorrow, but not today”. This sparks arguably the most famous aria of the opera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” – “love is a rebellious bird”, colloquially called “Habanera”), in which Carmen sings about the complexities of love all while performing a provocative dance.

Elina Garanca (Carmen) performing “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” at the Metropolitan Theater in 2009

The crowd of men begins to beg Carmen to tell them which of them she loves (“Carmen, sur tes pas, nous nous pressons tous” – “Carmen, on your steps, we are all in a hurry”). Ignoring them, she sets her sights on Don José, who is the only man who wasn’t paying attention to her dance. She begins to tease him, and with all watching, throws a rose at Don José’s feet. He appears annoyed and confused, and claims “certainly if there are witches, this girl is one”. The factory bell rings and the girls rush back to work. Don José picks up the rose and put is in his pocket.

Carmen, sur tes pas, nous nous pressons tous” performed live at the Metropolitan Theater in 2009

After the women are gone, Don José spots the approaching Micaëla and rushes to her. Micaëla says she came from their village to deliver a letter from his mother, and some extra money (“Parle-moi de ma mère!” – “Tell me about my mother!”). Shy and slightly embarrassed, she also tells him she is to deliver a kiss from his mother, which she delivers on his forehead. José longs for home, and continues to sing together with Micaëla about his regret being far from his home village and his mother. He also tells her to return a kiss to his mother, and tenderly kisses Micaëla.

Massimo Giordano and Anna Netrebko perform “Parle-moi de ma mère” in Vienna in 2010

Don José tries to get Micaëla to stay while he reads the letter, but she refuses and rushes off. Don José reads the letter, which tells him his mother wishes for him to return home and marry Micaëla, to which he happily agrees. As he curses the “witch” Carmen one last time and is about to throiw away her flower, there is loud screaming and the women pour out of the factory (“Au secours!” – “Help!”). Through the commotion of the screaming groups of women, we learn that Carmen has gotten into a fight with another woman. Zuniga discovers that Carmen has attacked another woman with a knife. Zuniga attempts to question her, but she simply hums a song and refuses to speak to him (“Tra, la, la, la”). Zuniga instructs José to tie Carmen up and leaves to do the paperwork. Tied up, Carmen begins teasing him, telling him that her “witch’s flower” charm is working, and claims he is already in love with her. He tells her to refrain from talking to him, and she begins to sing a suggestive song about a night of drinking, dancing, and passionate love at a tavern with “somebody” (“Près des remparts de Séville” – “Near the ramparts of Seville”). Don José succumbs to her advances and cannot contain himself any longer. He makes her promise that if he releases her they will love eachother and meet at that tavern. She promises, José loosens her ties.

Act I aria from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Elina Garanca (Carmen). Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Production: Richard Eyre (2009)

Zuniga returns with the orders to take Carmen to Prison. (“Voici l’ordre, partez” – “Here is the order, leave”). With her ties loosened, Carmen quickly devises a plan and tells Don José that she will push him down, and to leave leave the rest to her. She pushes José, and runs away. The soldiers quickly seize Don José and carry him off.

Elina Garanca (Carmen) performing “Voici l’ordre, partez”

Full Synopsis – Act 2

Act 2 opens with Carmen in the tavern (referred to in Act 1) with her two friends Frasquita and Mercédès. They are in the middle of entertaining guests (“Les tringles des sistres tintaient” – “The rods of the sistrums jingled”). Zuniga informs Carmen that the poor soldier that helped her escape (Don Josè) has been released from prison. The crowd outside announces the arrival of Escamillo, the celebrated bull-fighter (“Vivat! Vivat le torero!” – “Long live the bull fighter!”). Zuniga exclaims that they must invite him in and toast his world-wide triumphs. Escamillo arrives and immediately captivates the crowd singing of the glorious life of a bullfighter ( – “Your toast, I can return to you”). Towards the end of his song he sings that at the end of a bullfight love is waiting, which sends the women in the crowd into a frenzy. Escamillo gets close to Frasquita and Mercédès before setting eyes on Carmen. He asks Carmen “What if someone were to say he loved you” which she responds “I’d answer that he mustn’t”. Escamillo warns her that he will return.

“Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” performed by Laurent Naouri

After the crowd disperses and Escamillo departs, only Frasquita, Mercédès, and Carmen remain. Dancaïre and Remendado, two smugglers appear and tell the women that they need their assistance with a job (“Nous avons en tête une affaire.” – “We have a job in mind.”). They claim that thieving and smuggling is always better to do with women. Frasquita and Mercédès agree, but Carmen is reluctant to go. When pressed for a reason, Carmen admits she is in love.

“Nous avons en tête une affaire.” performed live at the Metropolitan Theater

A soldier is heard approaching (“Haite – la ! qui va la” – “Halt! Who goes there”). The smugglers and carmen’s friends all leave as José arrives at the tavern to find Carmen. She makes him jealous by telling him she was just dancing for Zuniga and the other soldiers. She begins to give José a private, exotic dance (“Je vais danser en votre honneur”, – “I will dance in your honor”). Don José cuts her off in the middle of the dance, however, saying he hears the bugles sounding a retreat, and that he must return to the barracks. Carmen is angered that she waited for a man she loved and he is leaving to go to the barracks. José responds by showing her the flower she had thrown at him, and explains how it’s smell and the prospect of seeing her again are what got him through prison (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” – “The flower you had thrown at me”).

Plácido Domingo performs “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” in Vienna, 1978

Carmen claims Don José does not truly love her, for if he did he would run away with her into the mountains. Don José refuses, and says farewell to Carmen. As they say goodbye, a knock is heard at the door and Zuniga bursts in, finding Don José and Carmen alone inside (“Holà! Carmen!”). He commands Don José to go back to the barracks, José refuses. Zuniga and José draw swords and begin to fight. Carmen calls for help and quickly her companions arrive, surrounding Zuniga with weapons. As they kick him out they ask José if he is now one of them, and he responds he now has no other option.

Full Synopsis – Act 3

Carmen, Don José and the group of smugglers cross a treacherous mountain pass to begin act 3 (“Écoute, écoute, compagnon” – “Listen, listen, friends”). The group decides to rest, and some go ahead to make sure they can get their smuggled goods through. Don José, looking out over the mountains, says his mother lives not far from there. Carmen, who is noticeably irritated with him, tells him to return to his mother because he obviously is unhappy with them. They continue to quarrel. Annoyed, Carmen walks over to Frasquita and Mercédès, who are entertaining themselves by dealing fortune telling cards (“Melons! Coupons!”). They take turns telling each others fortunes, and when they get to Carmen the cards show death for both her and Don José.

“Melons! Coupons!” performed by Elīna Garanča, Vannina Santoni and Antoinette Dennefeld in a modern rendition of Carmen

The smugglers devise a plan to get past the customs guards stationed ahead. The women will distract the guards, and Don José will keep watch. (“Quant au douanier c’est notre affaire” – “The customs guard, he’s up to us”). After the group departs Micaëla arrives hiking through the mountain. She is terrified of the dangerous mountain passes, but stays strong and is determined to face Carmen, who stole her love away, confidently (“Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” – “I say that nothing frightens me”).

“Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” performed live by Anna Netrebko

Soon after Micaëla spots Don José with his gun raised, he fires his weapon. Don José asks for the newcomer to identify himself. Escamillo announces himself (“Je suis Escamillo” – “I am Escamillo”). Escamillo tells Don José that he is after Carmen, and not knowing who he’s speaking to, says that Carmen ran away with a deserter, but surely their love will not last. Don José becomes angered and pulls out a knife. Escamillo recognizes that he is indeed Carmen’s lover, and the two begin to fight.

Roberto Alagna and Ludovic Tézier perform the duet “je suis escamillo”

The smuggler group returns in time to break up the fight (“Holà! Holà! José!”). Escamillo, delighted to see Carmen, says he will depart willingly. But before he leaves he invites “any who love him” to his next bullfight in Seville. After he walks off the group discovers somebody trying to hide, and Micaëla comes out of her hiding place. Don José asks who she has come for, and Micaëla responds by telling him that she has come to get him to return to his weeping mother (“Moi, je viens te chercher” – “I’ve come to get you”). Carmen cuts in, and Don José assures her that the chains of love they have shall never be broken, and he will not go with Micaëla. Micaëla put in one last word before she leaves, telling José that his mother is dying. With this news, José agrees to leave to his mother, but tells Carmen that he will return. As all depart, Escamillo is heard singing his tune.

2009 UFOC production of “Moi, je viens te chercher” by Jason Baldwin, Don Jose, Audrey Babcock, Carmen, Sarah Hibbard, Micaela.

Full Synopsis – Act 4

Act 4 opens with the bustling commotion of pedestrians purchasing oranges and fans prior to the bullfight (“A deux cuartos”). The crowd passionately sneering and cheering at the arrival of the bullfighters, giving an especially joyful cheer for Escamillo (“Les voici! les voici!” – “They’re here! They’re here”). Escamillo arrives with Carmen by his side. The two declare their love for each other (“Si tu m’aimes, Carmen” – “If you love me, Carmen”).

Mercedes and Frasquita warn Carmen that Don José is hiding in the crowd, and tell her she shouldn’t stay. Carmen replies that she is not afraid, and that she will go speak with him. Left alone, Carmen and José confront each other (“C’est toi? C’est moi.” – “it’s you?” It’s me.”). Don José begs Carmen to remember the past and to come back to him, but Carmen tells him that everything between them is over, and that she was born free, and will die free.

Elina Garanca & Roberto Alagna perform “”C’est toi? C’est moi.”

The crowd is heard cheering Escamillo on at the bullfight. This maddens Don José as he makes one last desperation attempt to win Carmen back by telling her “by his blood” that she will follow him. She removes a ring that José once gave her and throws it on the ground. Don José, driven mad with anger and jealousy pulls a knife out and stabs Carmen, killing her. He sings:

Ah! Carmen! My beloved Carmen!“…