Examining one of the main motifs in Carmen.
Many themes run through Carmen – sexuality and power (personified in Carmen herself), outsiders (Carmen is a gypsy), jealousy, fate, freedom, but the bull (and bullfighting) may be the most intriguing.
While love, honor and death are frequent themes in opera, bullfighting is certainly not. In fact, Carmen is the only popular opera to feature Ernest Hemingway’s favorite sport.
Carmen shocked audiences when it first opened with a heroine who smoke and drank (and held a job!) and was overtly sexual. All of that has long since become commonplace. But bullfighting is even more controversial now than when Carmen premiered.
In the final stage of a bullfight – when matador and bull face each other alone in the ring – their interactions resemble a dance. So, the dancing in Carmen is reminiscent of the dangerous dance between bull and matador. (Fate, too, plays a part in the opera and in the bullring. Carmen, like the bull, must be sacrificed.)
The bullfighting in Carmen is often seen as a metaphor – although which character represents the bull is up for debate. Some see Carmen as the bull, especially given the violent end she meets. (A bull cannot be tamed, and neither can she.) Others see José as the bull; both lash out when cornered.
No matter your take on what or who the bull represents, a bull ring is an exciting, singular setting for an opera. Seeing Carmen (or reading Hemingway) may be as close to a bull fight as many of us get.