Carmen by George Bizet is one of the most performed operas of all time; why do people love this story? This film goes behind the scenes of three very different versions.
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You might think you know nothing about opera,
but have a listen to this.
MUSIC: "Vivat! Vivat! Le Torero!" by Bizet
MUSIC: "Habanera" by Bizet
MUSIC: "C'est toi? C'est moi!" by Bizet
Sound familiar? Well, these are three of the most famous moments
from French composer George Bizet's opera Carmen.
Although this passionate tale of seduction, betrayal and murder
shocked audiences at its Parisian premiere in 1875,
Carmen has since become
one of the most performed operas in the world today.
To help discover what's so special about Bizet's Carmen,
we'll go behind the scenes of London's Royal Opera House,
a Bollywood adaptation and a version set in South Africa.
We'll meet the writers, conductors, singers and directors
who have created these different takes on Bizet's masterpiece
and get some top tips on how to adapt a classic opera.
George Bizet's opera Carmen has captured the hearts of audiences
around the world for over a century,
and has had countless retellings on stage, film and TV.
The Royal Opera House set their production of Carmen
in southern Spain during the 1800s,
which closely follows Bizet's original stage directions.
Essentially it's about a soldier, Don Jose,
who falls in love with a beautiful woman, Carmen.
She walks into a room and everyone knows she's there.
She is the life and soul of any party.
And Don Jose quickly falls for Carmen's charms.
Don Jose leaves his childhood sweetheart behind,
totally forgets about her.
Carmen...she doesn't want to be tied down at all,
but she is interested, of course,
in the celebrity bull-fighter, Escamillo.
And he invites her to a bull fight,
and Don Jose is furious that she has been invited by somebody else
and that she's actually very keen to go.
Don Jose follows her to the fight and it all ends in tragedy.
# This girl is on fire
# This girl is on fire. #
Carmen the opera is almost like it's already a Bollywood movie.
You have the themes of love and tragedy.
Bollywood movies, they're really melodramatic,
they're really over the top, they're really like operas.
They've got the same kind of thing, all the emotions are really intense,
all the characters are larger than life. Everything that happens
to them is either tragic or fantastic or wonderful,
and the two things seemed exactly the same.
So a Bollywood version of Bizet's Carmen seemed the perfect fit.
Bollywood Carmen is set in Bradford,
and our Carmen is an ordinary Bradford girl,
and she's a waitress at a sort of pop-up cafe
in the city centre called Lily P's,
and all of her life, she's wanted to be a Bollywood star.
I've watched all the movies, learnt all the dance moves,
I've even sewn the sequins on by hand. I'm ready to help myself.
And luck would have it that one evening, a Bollywood roadshow
comes to town headed up by the biggest star in Bollywood, AD,
and the story of Bollywood Carmen is really how
this local Bradford girl, Carmen, infiltrates the world of Bollywood.
Well, if you're going to see the Bollywood movie,
AD is supposed to be the archetypal Bollywood superstar.
# Warrior or lover... #
Like Escamillo the Toreador in the original,
he's a man who's full of his own self-importance,
who's full of his own pride.
He wrote the script, he's the lead actor, he's the director.
He's spontaneous, so every decision he makes is always right,
and he pushes himself forward all the time.
Don in Bollywood Carmen is the equivalent of Don Jose in the opera,
and the two characters are very, very similar in both adaptations,
that at the beginning of Bollywood Carmen,
Don is a security guard and he's this straight, upstanding guy.
He's got a good relationship with his supervisor, Eddie,
and he's really actually enjoying the show, and then
his fiancee arrives and she says,
"I've got a message from your mother.
"Your mother wants us to get married," and he and Tenisha have
this beautiful wedding fantasy and everything's going to be fantastic.
SHE SINGS IN HINDI
And then, into his life comes Carmen.
ELECTRIC DANCE MUSIC
In Bollywood films, you have two kinds of song and dance numbers.
Some of them are item numbers which bear no relation to the film,
and other ones are story song and dances,
which advance the plot and, in our Carmen,
every song and dance is a story dance because it advances the plot,
because it's a musical.
In 2005, world-renowned conductor
Charles Hazelwood made his version of Carmen in South Africa.
Of course when you're doing a piece like Carmen,
well, any story, actually, in a particular culture,
so in my case, doing Carmen in South Africa,
you want to find truth, don't you? You don't want to create scenarios,
environments, characters which don't feel truthful to that culture.
So, for instance,
it seemed very obvious to us that Escamillo couldn't be a bull-fighter,
and indeed the piece couldn't culminate in a big bull fight,
because there isn't really bull-fighting in South Africa,
it's not part of that culture.
However, singing is a fundamental part of that culture.
So it seemed natural that Escamillo should be a very glamorous opera singer
who has had a big international career,
and very natural that the kind of final scene should be
like a great concert, a great kind of choir competition moment.
That felt like an absolute bulls-eye for our Carmen.
When I started working on the project, I was very excited
because I knew the opera by Bizet,
but I'd never read the original short story by Merimee,
and I immediately went and got that and read it,
and I was very inspired, because it is the story of Carmen,
but it sort of fills in all the blanks.
FLAMENCO GUITAR STRUM
It has it in some of the most astonishingly acute
and telling descriptions, principal among them Carmen herself.
There's this brilliant phrase he uses
when he's describing her eyes,
he said, "If you want to understand these dark eyes, Carmen's dark eyes,
"look no further than in the eye of your cat
"when it's stalking a sparrow."
That tells you a million different things.
The kind of essence, almost what she smells like,
this person called Carmen.
A good story can be told in so many different ways
and told down the years in so many different circumstances,
and I think one of the wonderful things about it is that it is so
robust that it can stand all of this ill treatment that we've given it,
and we've done all of this stuff to it,
and we've dressed it up in a sari
and we've given it a techno beat and all of that,
but the story still stands because the story is just so good.
So what are the top tips to keep in mind when reworking a classic story?
Well, if you've decided to adapt a story and the story's good,
identify what's good about the story,
because if you can keep that in your adaption,
your adaptation's going to be good.
If you could distil it down and describe Carmen in a sentence,
describe Don Jose in a sentence,
describe what happens between the two of them in a sentence,
describe what Escamillo has to do with them in a sentence,
and then describe what happens at the end,
already you've got that kind of a much more manageable,
kind of baseline sense of what are the big aspects to this piece.
It's about taking what you feel really passionately about
and what interests you about this piece
and running with it, seeing where it goes.
And once the story has been adapted,
the next element to work out is the treatment of the music.
Something that interests me enormously about Bizet's music
is that it's very open rather than closed.
Now, what I mean by that is, in some respects it's quite over-written.
So what he does, he'll take a tune and he'll work it and work it
and work it, and if you listen to the opera from end to end,
you'll hear a small...
a small number of tunes which are consistently re-worked.
MAN SPEAKS INDISTINCTLY
One of the big jobs, I think, for any conductor or director
approaching this piece is to just prune it down.
# I treat you mean to keep you keen. #
And the person responsible for doing this in the Bollywood adaptation
of Carmen was music director and composer, Kuljit Bhamra.
Personally, for me in this particular project,
I tried to... I tried my best to keep the Bizet-lovers happy,
and also to keep the Bollywood lovers happy.
And the pop lovers happy.
I know a lot of my friends and people that I know
from the British Asian community wouldn't normally go to opera,
and I always thought that that's a problem, and I've often wondered
why they don't go there. So I was interested in picking bits
of Bizet out that I thought would appeal to the Indian audiences.
A Bollywood-inspired film like our Carmen really is
based around the songs and dances.
The film is masala, a mixture, the music is a masala
of contemporary western, traditional Bollywood,
but through it all,
there is this seeding of the themes from the original opera,
but in a style that a modern audience will get.
MUSICAL PIECE FROM CARMEN
So there was this phrase that I love
and I thought I could really take that
and if I was to play that in an Indian way ...
So I could add those Indian...
Wiggling my head as I'm doing that!
All these little ornaments...
that we're very familiar with,
I thought, "That could fit very easily with that."
Bizet uses these short-repeating melodies to flag up the appearance
of different characters or key moments in the drama.
In the opera,
the piece most associated with the lead character, Carmen,
has the ominous title of The Fate Motif.
The first time you hear it, it's actually, if you look in the score,
it's marked Entrance Of Carmen.
That's the first thing we hear underneath it.
Except it's really quick.
So you wouldn't necessarily associate it with doom and gloom,
more with her flamboyancy.
Another time we hear it,
he underscores it in a slightly different way.
SHE PLAYS PIANO
And it's altered just slightly, but then...
SHE PLAYS PIANO
..we hear it in its true form,
and this is just before Carmen turns the card that indicates death.
And it's almost that Bizet, every single time,
is giving you a heads up that things are not going to turn out well.
Another time that we hear it is right at the very end of the opera.
Don Jose has killed Carmen by this time and he's calling the police,
and what's interesting about this is that Bizet actually ends
the motif in a major key, so it's totally different, very, very slow.
In F sharp major which he hasn't done at all,
and that's just before Don Jose sings, "I have killed my own love."
MUSIC: "C'est toi? C'est moi!" by Bizet
And this is interesting because
it's just that Bizet can use a motif in many, many different guises.
MUSIC: "Vivat! Vivat! Le Torero!" by Bizet
So in the overture,
you hear The Toreador's Song, which of course is associated
with the celebrity bull-fighter Escamillo,
and you know right from the start...
that he's got a real swagger to him.
We hear this in his character and indeed in the music,
and halfway through this melody, as well, you'll hear much more...
SHE PLAYS THE TOREADOR'S SONG
..kind of charming side of him,
so he certainly has a way with the ladies.
MUSICAL PIECE FROM CARMEN
The Toreador song is perhaps one of the most famous of all
operatic arias, and so our AD, our Toreador character,
the Bollywood superstar, had to sing it,
but quite early on we realised that he couldn't sing all of it,
because the tune is actually incredibly corny
and we tried arranging it in several different ways and it never worked,
it always sounded awful, and I found a quote from Bizet
saying that he thought it sounded awful,
but it was meant to sound awful, because it was supposed to show
what the character was like and we thought, "That's a bit subtle
"for us, really, so we'll drop all of those bits,
"and we'll just keep the strongest bit of the tune."
# I'm always seen right up there on the screen
# And you know what I mean
# When I say I'm the star. #
So it's not the well-known bit but the lead into it,
and we thought, "OK, if we've done that, let's treat it in the
"most radical way possible." And so we found a young Asian producer
called Angel, who really specialises in the music of now.
Angel started out as a bedroom producer, having taught himself
how to remix tracks from free downloaded software.
He's now a rising star on the British Asian music scene.
For me, the Toreador track,
the main part would be just the beginning, just...
# Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun. #
It's just, like... It's the first thing,
it's very big, it's very bold and you'll remember that melody.
At the end of it you come out singing...
HE HUMS TUNE
I had to use something like that,
there had to be some element of that.
Wow, man, that was an amazing voice.
I had to change the melody a little bit just to keep...
Put it up to date and obviously overlap with Bollywood as well.
He turned it into this fantastic kind of
four-to-the-floor sort of Saturday night banger really.
I mean, it is the sort of thing that I hope that you might hear
in a club or hear on Radio 1Xtra.
This four-to-the-floor banger started life as a pasadoble,
which is a Spanish dance tune
that would have typically been played at a bullfight.
But to help keep their adaptation feeling South African,
Charles Hazlewood's team had to make a radical decision
about this most famous tune.
If you watch U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, we had the kind of confidence
to dump one of the single most iconic songs in the whole piece...
HE HUMS TUNE
We cut it. Now that's a hell of a thing to do. If you think Carmen,
people across the world hear that tune. But you know what?
It didn't work for us, it didn't work in the particular context -
Escamillo returning opera singer, not a bullfighter.
I don't know, it just was plain wrong, wrong, wrong,
so we dumped it in favour of a Xhosa tune which we used instead.
The entire production of U-Carmen eKhayelitsha
was translated from Bizet's French
into the South African language of Xhosa.
It's an astonishingly musical language,
it's got these very wide-open vowels
and then of course various different types of very percussive click.
So it's astonishing. It works brilliantly when you hear it.
It feels as ludicrously authentic as you can possibly imagine.
This key song of Carmen's is called the Habanera,
and Bizet himself adapted the music from a popular Spanish folk tune.
# I treat you mean to keep you keen
# So you believe you really stand a chance
# I hold you there so you're prepared
# To go a little crazy when you... #
Now one of the things about Habanera is that it's got a...
a very beautiful combination of a minor and a major key
which is also very common in India.
In India, the slides are very important.
The trills, or sometimes people call them mordents, are very important.
And that's what makes the composition sound Indian.
How we approach notes is a lot slower
than you would in western music for example.
I would go...
# Leaving you stood there. #
And if I did a little trill...
# Leaving you stood there. #
Suddenly it sounds oriental or eastern or Indian
and that's the thing that we incorporated.
# You won't catch it and you can't catch me. #
If you were taking Carmen
as a source of inspiration for your own music,
here are some top tips to keep in mind.
There is so much in here to look at
and it's so rich with themes, you could take any of these themes.
You could take any of the motifs and rework them,
certainly thinking about Spanish, that kind of Spanish flavour
and trying to create music that has that exotic nature.
Opera and classical music is easy to put into any track
as long as there is reason
or there's a certain sort of function for it there.
Because it's strings and brass,
it fits really nicely in the background.
You can get away with putting it in a lot of different types of tracks.
And once you're clear about
the melody and the notes that you're singing,
the next stage is to then ask yourself how to express those notes.
Am I going to sing this note in an aggressive way?
# Love is a bird. #
Or sing it in a romantic way?
# Love is a bird. #
The notes are the same but the expression's very different.
And once the music is in place,
the next step is to develop the choreography.
With a musical production,
the performer's movement is carefully directed
to help tell the story and give the piece a distinctive look.
The choreographers of each adaptation of Carmen
have used the location, period and plot of their version
to develop an authentic and stylish set of moves.
Because the Royal Opera House set their version of Carmen
in southern Spain, the choreography features a type of dance
that originates from that region... called Flamenco.
When you watch Flamenco in Spain,
Flamenco is rarely improvisational.
Well, they work around an improvisation which has a structure
and often they will guide in, the guitarist will go with them
and there'll be certain stops
and they just go with the flow, that's true Flamenco.
So in our dance I wanted to get that feeling of an improvisation,
so we started in silence and we started
just with the rhythms and clapping.
And then the music comes in very quietly underneath it.
This is the Dance of the Gypsies, where we see the lead character
Carmen letting loose with her friends in the local tavern.
It's very important that it's realistic.
It just needs one bar of calming down.
Shall we go from that...
'It's the first time I've worked with Antonio Pappano.'
Some conductors think it's very important to be very quiet
during the music and he has the attitude,
"Well, this is a tavern so we have to hear it."
In opera, because the music is performed live,
the choreographer works closely with the conductor
to ensure the timings and sound levels of the movement onstage
work with the conductor's vision for the music.
With the Bollywood version of Carmen,
the music was largely pre-recorded.
You see, in Bollywood we don't sing our own songs - we mime.
So the choreographer Honey Kalaria
developed the movement with the show's director Indra Bhose.
What we were trying to do was trying to distil
a hundred years of Bollywood cinema into one film
and really go for all the archetypal songs and dances
so that our British audience would see every kind of dance style
that you would get in a Bollywood movie.
And one track that featured
a fusion of Indian and Western styles of dance
was an adaptation of Akon's hit song Chammak Challo.
So, for example, we used Indian classical hands.
So I used little classical hands
where we use these
It's an Indian classical dance style
where all the hands and all the finger are kind of fanned out.
The hand movements of Bharatanatyam reflect gestures
described in ancient stories about the gods of the Hindu religion.
It was typically practised in South India by female temple dancers
and was not performed as entertainment until the 1930s.
We did use a lot of the classical Bharatanatyam movements
in Chammak Challo, but what we ended up doing was we ended up using
the Kathak style which changes the mudras, the hand gestures,
into from here to that.
And the kind of movements that are used in Kathak dance
are very, very graceful with the hands.
Kathak dance originates in Northern India
and the word Kathak means to tell a story.
So the graceful looking hand gestures
are often mimicking everyday activities.
Honey Kalaria incorporated this idea in the creation of Kabhi Kabhi
which features a classic Bollywood wedding fantasy dance.
I felt that you know to create a wedding atmosphere,
which is very, very dreamy,
you would need nice, very flowing movements with your hands
because I think that looks really beautiful
especially if you're doing things like, you know,
putting earrings on as you get ready for a wedding.
It all comes from Indian classical dance where you're actually
acting a dance piece out or the words out.
# Sometimes in my heart I feel you're made for me
# For ever in love my wish... #
Honey Kalaria worked closely with her assistant Sita Thomas
to teach the team of 37 dancers
the many different styles of Indian dance in the choreography.
Where the female dancers are doing the different Kathak style,
which is different hands and lots of flowing movement,
which actually is really similar to ballet I found,
whereas ballet you've got still flowing arms,
but then take it straighter and add the Kathak hands on
and you've got the very similar flow and dynamic to the movement.
# Also in my heart I feel you're made for me... #
And then something like Bhangra,
we've got a big song at the end called Punjabi MC,
which I loved working with the volunteer dancers
and professionals on.
It's all about getting low into the floor, with lots of knees,
lots of hands, lots and lots of twists
and the main element is the shoulders.
As well as working with a team of 16 professional dancers,
the Bollywood Carmen production recruited 21 volunteers
from local dance groups like Bradford's own Punjabi Roots.
Our dance is called Bhangra Dance, that's from Punjab,
the north of India, and where it originates from is the farmlands.
So all the things we do on the farmlands, for example,
around the harvest area, picking the crops, sowing the seeds,
rearing the animals, our dance really comes from there.
As well as showcasing Indian styles of dance,
Bollywood Carmen also featured Western choreography.
I worked very closely with Matt Flint,
a choreographer who comes from shows like Strictly Come Dancing
to give me that Western sense of storytelling
to keep a story in the dance.
So we got to look at how it sits in the plot
and then find the right kind of movement and choreography
to complement the narrative.
I really wanted at times to be very faithful to Bizet
and one of the arias from the opera is when they are on the mountain top
and they do the tarot card dealing
and they sing Melons! Coupons!.
So in our version we've taken a very, very famous Bollywood track
called Dum Maro Dum
and we've made that into the card reading scene.
# Card, shuffle, deal
# The future is revealed
# A game we've often played
# Hearts and diamonds, clubs and spades... #
When a number like Cut The Cards comes into it,
then you've got to read the script,
see how it's going to affect the characters
and what they need to do, and then when you get the actors in the room
you need to feed off them really to make sure the story's coming
through as well, that's the main objective.
Where Honey's choreography is led by the music,
Matt's is led by the plot.
For him, the actor's input is vital,
so that he can develop movement that feels true to the character.
Matt and Indra just sort of let us do what we feel we want to do
and then he'll kind of then put it into shape,
so that's how we kind of work those moments,
we just kind of improvise it and then put it into shape.
The movement for U-Carmen eKhayelitsha may not look as staged
as those in Bollywood Carmen or the Royal Opera House production,
but the dances in the piece were still choreographed so as to
replicate events found in everyday South African township life.
The interesting thing incidentally about black South Africans,
or the thing I found the most intoxicating about how they move,
it seems like they've got a lower centre of gravity than say me,
so their dance is all kind of sort of more to do with the hips,
which is interesting because of course if you think about
Flamenco dancing, it's also, I would say as a rank amateur,
it's a kind of, it's a hip-based enterprise. You're focused,
your eyes, the centre of your attention is on the hips
and that's very much, I find, the way that black South Africans dance,
it's a kind of natural synergy there.
To help create choreography for an adaptation,
here are the final set of top tips from the experts.
The advice that I'd give to somebody who wants to be a choreographer
is to just start doing it.
Once you start to let your imagination build from there on up,
you've got to find the authenticity
in terms of your own situation and the people around you.
It's got to ring true to you.
The other thing is to also give good instructions to your team,
so everyone comes out with some moves and ideas that can go into
that particular dance routine
and suddenly create something which is quite extravagant
and quite spectacular really.
And once the story, music and movement have been adapted,
add costumes, lights and props
and the production is ready to be performed.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Carmen by George Bizet is one of the most performed operas of all time. Why do people love this story? This film goes behind the scenes of three very different versions - the 2007 acclaimed production at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, a 2005 film version shot in a South African township - U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, and a 2013 live TV version filmed in the centre of Bradford, 'Bollywood Carmen'. There is a heady mix of behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage, with unique access to the writers, choreographers and composers behind the three adaptations.
Animateur and composer Hannah Conway breaks down the most famous elements of Bizet's original score, looks at what influenced him and how he uses motifs and repeating melodies to bring drama to the music. Conductor Charles Hazlewood transports us to Khayelitsha, the largest township in South Africa, and brings home the importance of keeping an adaptation truthful and authentic. From the Bradford-based Bollywood adaptation of Carmen, we meet the writers, composers, choreographers and performers to discover how they successfully fused contemporary as well as traditional Indian music and dance styles with Bizet's masterpiece.
Discover what is so special about Bizet's music and how to authentically transplant this passionate tale of seduction, betrayal and murder from one culture into another.