About the Composer & Librettists

Learn more about Georges Bizet, Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy, the trio behind Carmen.

The following biography first appeared on San Francisco Classical Voice. https://www.sfcv.org/

Vital Statistics

Born: October 25, 1838, Paris

Died: June 3, 1875, Paris
Nationality: French
Period: Romantic
Performed As: Pianist

During Lifetime: Railroads helped create the suburbs of Paris. Baron Haussmann redesigned Paris, leveling entire districts and creating the city’s modern face. A new opera house, the Palais Garnier, was built. War with Prussia, in 1871, brought down France’s Second Empire, and 20,000 Parisians died fighting their own government during the Paris Commune.

Biographical Outline
Born to music: Both of Bizet’s parents, and an uncle were singing teachers. His mother teaches him piano and singing, and he is admitted to the Paris Conservatoire de Musique at age 9. He wins a piano first prize from the Conservatoire in 1852, and studies with the respected composers Fromental Hàlevy and Charles Gounod. In 1857, at 19, Bizet wins the Prix de Rome, the Conservatoire’s top composition award.
  • Young professional, 1860: Bizet works as an arranger, making piano reductions of large scores. In 1863, he writes Les pêcheurs de perles (The pearl fishers) for the Theatre-Lyrique. This is a moderate success winning praise from then-critic Hector Berlioz.
  • Doubt, 1867: The lukewarm reaction to Bizet’s La jolie fille de Perth (The fair maid of Perth), troubles Bizet and increases his chronic indecisiveness. Nevertheless, he continues to work, finishing the big symphony Roma in 1868.
  • Back on track, 1871-1872: Bizet finishes the one-act opera Djamileh and the piano suite Jeux d’enfants (Children’s games), some of which are orchestrated and performed. The orchestral suite of music to the play L’Arlesienne (The girl from Arles, 1872), is an immediate hit.
  • Carmen, 1873-1875: Commissioned by the Opéra Comique. Rehearsals for Carmen are delayed, partly because one of the Opéra Comique’s two directors objected to the morality of the libretto. It  finally premieres on March 3, 1875, and is successful, despite its scandalous storyline. Bizet dies three months later, after suffering two heart attacks.

Fun Facts
  • Name game: Bizet’s given name was Alexandre César Léopold. He just liked Georges better.
  • Dual nature: Bizet was sincere, guileless, and vivacious. However, he was also moody and indecisive, which caused a break in his marriage. A theater composer has to take charge of his librettists and the staging of a work, and deal effectively with theater directors. Bizet could do none of this, floating from project to project without a clear path. That’s a major reason for his theatrical failures.
  • Highest praise: Bizet’s ability as a pianist, particularly as a sight-reader, was so great that the  famous Liszt pronounced him his equal.
  • Parisian to the core: Aside from his three years in Italy after winning the Prix de Rome, Bizet rarely left Paris and its suburbs.
  • Recycler: Bizet always reused material from unproduced or unfinished works. That’s a good thing, because Bizet left a lot of unfinished work: Only six of 30 opera projects he started were ever completed.
  • Movie lifeCarmen is unquestionably one of the most famous and popular operas of all time. There are numerous film versions, including two silent movie versions in 1915, a flamenco version (by Carlos Saura, 1983), and a traditionally operatic version (1984). In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote an African American version, Carmen Jones, and two recent movie adaptations have been set in Dakar, Senegal (Karmen Gei, sung in Wolof and French) and South Africa (U-Carmen-e-Khayelitsha, 2005, sung in the Xhosa language).

Recommended Biography

There are no recent, English language biographies of Bizet. The standard one is out of print, but is worthwhile, if you can find it:

Explore the Music
  • Melody Man: Bizet had a huge melodic gift. Aside from Carmen, The Pearl Fishers has recently become quite common onstage. Bizet’s other operas are almost never produced. The L’Arlesienne suite is a staple of orchestral  programs, along with the Symphony in C Major, written when he was 17. Many of his melodies (art-songs) are brilliant, and Jeux d’enfants is delightful.
  • Carmen the great: Bizet’s Carmen is a landmark in 19th-century opera for its grittiness, its defiantly sexual leading female character, and its non-heroic portrayal of a wide slice of society. It is consistently one of the five most performed operas in the world and contains some of the most famous opera melodies ever written, foremost the Habanera and the Toreador Song.
  • To sing, or to speak: The dialogue in Carmen was originally meant to be spoken. Recitatives were added by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud after the composer’s death, to help broaden the work’s appeal to producers.
  • Misrepresented: Many of Bizet’s original autograph scores are still missing, and his works exist in a variety of unreliable, unauthorized, badly edited versions.

Recommended Websites

  • Carmen (DVD)
    • Anna Caterina Antonacci, Jonas Kaufmann, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano cond.; Francesca Zambello, director  (Decca 2008)
    • Agnes Baltsa, Josè Carreras, Samuel Ramey; Metropolitan Opera House, James Levine, cond.; Paul Mills, director. (Deutsche Gramophon 2007/1987 production)
  • Carmen (Compact Disc)
    • Both of these recordings feature dialogue instead of sung recitative. However the EMI recording replaces the singers with French actors during those (brief) parts.
    • Tatiana Troyanos/ Placido Domingo/ Josè van Dam; London Philharmonic/ Georg Solti  (London, 1990)
    • Grace Bumbry/ Jon Vickers/ Kostas Paskalis; Orchestra of the National Opera, Paris/ Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos (EMI, 2004)
  • Orchestral Music
    • Suites 1 and 2 from L’Arlesienne / Suite from Carmen
    • Barcelona Symphony Orchestra/ Josè Serebrier (Bis, 2004). Serebrier’s Carmen Symphony contains all the music from both suites and some extras.
    • Les Musiciens du Louvre/ Marc Minkowski (Naïve, 2008). The L’Arlesienne suites are augmented by more of Bizet’s incidental music.
    • Symphony in C
    • New York Philharmonic/ Leonard Bernstein (Sony, 1999). Also contains music by Offenbach
    • Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Bernard Haitink (Eloquence, 2007). Also includes Jeux d’enfants orchestral suite and Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony.
  • Songs
    • Ann Murray/ Graham Johnson, Songs by Bizet (Hyperion, 1998)
    • Cecilia Bartoli/ Myung-Whun Chung, Chant d’Amour (London, 1996)

Ludovic Halévy was born in Paris. His father, Léon Halévy (1802–1883), was a civil servant and a clever and versatile writer, who tried almost every branch of literature—prose and verse, vaudeville, drama, history—without, however, achieving decisive success in any. His uncle, Fromental Halévy, was a noted composer of opera; hence the double and early connection of Ludovic Halévy with the Parisian stage. His father had converted from Judaism to Christianity prior to his marriage with Alexandrine Lebas, daughter of a Christian architect.

At the age of six, Halévy might have been seen playing in that Foyer de la danse with which he was to make his readers so familiar, and, when a boy of twelve, he would often, on a Sunday night, on his way back to the Collège Louis le Grand, look in at the Odéon, where he had free admittance, and see the first act of the new play. At eighteen he joined the ranks of the French administration and occupied various posts, the last being that of secrétaire-rédacteur to the Corps Législatif. In that capacity, he enjoyed the special favour and friendship of the famous duke of Morny, then president of that assembly.

In 1865, Ludovic Halévy's increasing popularity as an author enabled him to retire from the public service. Ten years earlier, he had become acquainted with the musician Offenbach, who was about to start a small theatre of his own in the Champs-Élysées, and he wrote a sort of prologue, Entrez, messieurs, mesdames, for the opening night. Other little productions followed, Ba-ta-clan being the most noticeable among them. They were produced under the pseudonym of Jules Servières. The name of Ludovic Halévy appeared for the first time on the bills on 1 January 1856.

Soon afterwards, the unprecedented run of Orphée aux enfers, a musical parody, written in collaboration with Hector Crémieux, made his name famous. In the spring of 1860, he was commissioned to write a play for the manager of the Variétés in conjunction with another vaudevillist, Lambert-Thiboust.

The latter having abruptly retired from the collaboration, Halévy was at a loss how to carry out the contract, when on the steps of the theatre he met Henri Meilhac (1831–1897), then comparatively a stranger to him. He proposed to Meilhac the task rejected by Lambert Thiboust, and the proposal was immediately accepted. Thus began a connection which was to last over twenty years, and which proved most fruitful both for the reputation of the two authors and the prosperity of the minor Paris theatres. Their joint works may be divided into three classes: the operettas, the farces, the comedies.

The opérettes afforded excellent opportunities to a gifted musician for the display of his peculiar humour. They were broad and lively libels against the society of the time, but savoured strongly of the vices and follies they were supposed to satirize. Amongst the most celebrated works of the joint authors were La belle Hélène (1864), Barbe-bleue (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), La Périchole (1868), and Le Réveillon, which became one of the sources of Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus.

After 1870, the vogue of parody rapidly declined. The decadence became still more apparent when Offenbach was no longer at hand to assist the two authors with his quaint musical irony, and when they had to deal with interpreters almost destitute of singing powers. They wrote farces of the old type, consisting of complicated intrigues, with which they cleverly interwove the representation of contemporary whims and social oddities. They generally failed when they attempted comedies of a more serious character and tried to introduce a higher sort of emotion. A solitary exception must be made in the case of Froufrou (1869), which, owing perhaps to the admirable talent of Aimée Desclée, remains their unique Succès de larmes. During this period, they wrote the libretto to Carmen but it was a sideshow to their other work.

Meilhac and Halévy will be found at their best in light sketches of Parisian life, Les Sonnettes, Madame attend Monsieur, Toto chez Tata and Le Roi Candaule (the title of the last is derived from the Classical Greek account of the semi-legendary King Candaules). In that intimate association between the two men who had met so opportunely on the perron des variétés, it was often asked who was the leading partner.

The question was not answered until the connection was finally severed and they stood before the public, each to answer for his own work. It was then apparent that they had many gifts in common. Both had wit, humour, observation of character. Meilhac had a ready imagination, a rich and whimsical fancy; Halévy had taste, refinement and pathos of a certain kind. Not less clever than his brilliant comrade, he was more human.

Of this he gave evidence in two delightful books, Monsieur et Madame Cardinal (1873) and Les Petites Cardinal, in which the lowest orders of the Parisian middle class are faithfully described. The pompous, pedantic, venomous Monsieur Cardinal will long survive as the true image of sententious and self-glorifying immorality. M. Halévy's peculiar qualities are even more visible in the simple and striking scenes of the Invasion, published soon after the conclusion of the Franco-German War, in Criquette (1883) and The Abbot Constantine (1882), two novels, the latter of which went through innumerable editions.

M. Ludovic Halévy was elected to the Académie française in 1884.

Halévy remained an assiduous frequenter of the Academy, the Conservatoire, the Comédie Française, and the Society of Dramatic Authors, but, when he died in Paris on 7 May 1908, he had produced practically nothing new for many years.

His last romance, Kari Kari, appeared in 1892. His diary was published in book form in 1935 as well as serially in the pages of the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1937–38.

Source: Wikipedia

Meilhac was born in the 1st arrondissement of Paris in 1830. As a young man, he began writing fanciful articles for Parisian newspapers and comédies en vaudevilles, in a vivacious boulevardier spirit which brought him to the forefront. About 1860, Meilhac met Ludovic Halévy, and their collaboration for the stage lasted twenty years.

Their most famous collaboration is the libretto for Georges Bizet's Carmen. However, Meilhac's work is most closely tied to the music of Jacques Offenbach, for whom he wrote over a dozen librettos, most of them together with Halévy. The most successful collaborations with Offenbach are La belle Hélène (1864), Barbe-bleue (1866), La Vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868).

Other librettos by Meilhac include Jules Massenet's Manon (with Philippe Gille) (1884), Hervé's Mam'zelle Nitouche (1883), and Rip, the French version of Robert Planquette's operetta Rip Van Winkle (also with Gille). Their vaudeville play Le réveillon was the basis of the operetta Die Fledermaus.

In 1888, Meilhac was elected to the Académie française. He died in Paris in 1897.

Source: Wikipedia

Explore the five reasons why you won't want to miss Carmen.