Carmen 101 – Characters and Plot
By: Suzanne Whitney & Bethany Wood
“Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!” or “Free she was born and free she will die!” are Carmen’s famous words about herself. Both the character and the music of Bizet’s Carmen are iconic in the operatic world and beyond. You may have never stepped into an opera house, but it is highly likely you will recognize at least one tune from Carmen—whether it is Carmen’s sensuous “Habenera” or the rousing Toreador song. However, just because the music is hummable, doesn’t mean you know about the plot, characters, or creators of Carmen.
In May of 2022, Opera Colorado will present a lush and fanciful production of Bizet’s Carmen. Before you head to the opera house, take some time to get to know the plot and our production!
Composer – Georges Bizet (October 25, 1838 – June 3, 1875)
Librettists – Henri Meilhac (February 23, 1830 – July 6, 1897) and Ludovic Halévy (January 1, 1834 – May, 7, 1908)
Source Material – Carmen, a novella by Prosper Mérimée (September 28, 1803 – September 23, 1870)
Carmen (mezzo-soprano) – A fierce and mercurial woman who works as a cigarette girl in Sevilla, Spain. Played by Kate Aldrich in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production.
Don José (tenor) – A corporal of the Spanish Dragoons who falls for Carmen’s charms. Played by Bruce Sledge in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production.
Escamillo (baritone) – A glamorous toreador or bullfighter who turns Carmen’s head from Don José. Played by Nmon Ford in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production. Get to know more about Nmon and his project to create and star in Orfeus, A House Music Opera. Watch Now>>
Micaëla (soprano) – A kind and naive young woman in love with Don José. Played by Susannah Biller in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production. Micaëla may seem sweet, but she loves fiercely. Watch Janai Brugger sing Micaëla’s signature aria in our 2014 production of Carmen.>>
Captain Zuniga (bass-baritone) – The captain of Don José’s platoon. Played by 2021-22 Opera Colorado Artist in Residence Phillip Lopez in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production.
Moralès (tenor) – Another corporal in the Spanish Dragoons. Played by 2021-22 Opera Colorado Artist in Residence Joseph Goodale in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production.
Dancaïre (baritone) – Leader of the smugglers. Played by 2021-22 Opera Colorado Artist in Residence Thomas Lynch in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production.
Remendado (tenor) – A member of the smugglers. Played by 2021-22 Opera Colorado Artist in Residence Spencer Lawrence Boyd in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production.
Frasquita (soprano) – One of Carmen’s friends. Played by 2021-22 Opera Colorado Artist in Residence Catherine Swindle in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production.
Mercédès (mezzo-soprano) – One of Carmen’s friends. Played by 2021-22 Opera Colorado Artist in Residence Kendra Broom in Opera Colorado’s 2022 production.
This opera takes place in Sevilla, Spain and the surrounding countryside in the 1820s.
Wondering why you would want to read a synopsis before you attend the opera? Learn more in our post “Before the Opera”>> Head into the opera house knowing all the details of the plot of Carmen.
Carmen – Act One
A busy town square in Sevilla, Spain – 1820. A guardhouse sits on one side of the town square and the entrance to a tobacco factory borders the other.
Soldiers pass the time people watching and gambling at cards and dice. Micaëla, a guileless country girl, approaches the guardhouse, looking for Don José. His company of dragoons has not yet arrived, so she decides to leave and return later. Soon after, Don José’s company arrives. Their leader, Captain Zuniga looks forward to seeing the pretty young women who work rolling cigarettes at the tobacco factory. Don José says that he is not interested in meeting them because he is in love with Micaëla.
The lunch bell rings, and the cigarette girls exit the factory to enjoy their break. The women dance for the onlooking men, holding cigarettes they have rolled at work. The women compare the smoke from cigarettes to the promises of lovers, which fade as quickly as they meet the air.
Carmen, the most popular cigarette girl, enters, and the men entreat her to tell them when she will choose one of them as her love. Carmen sings the “Habanera,” describing the changeability of love, which arrives unexpectedly, lingers indefinitely, and flies away suddenly. Her song ends with a caution: “If I love you and you spurn me, I’m warning you, you play with fire!” Angry that Don José is ignoring her, Carmen throws a flower at his feet before she exits. The guards and cigarette girls return to work. Don José picks up the flower Carmen has left.
Just then, Micaëla arrives with a letter from Don José’s mother, accompanied by a kiss, which Micaëla also delivers. Micaëla leaves Don José to read the letter. As he reads, he agrees to obey his mother’s instructions to marry Micaëla.
Suddenly, screams are heard from inside the factory! Captain Zuniga comes running as women pour out of the factory in a tumult. They report a brawl inside, between Carmen and another worker. Zuniga sends Don José in to investigate. He returns with Carmen, who refuses to tell Zuniga what happened. Zuniga orders Don José to tie Carmen’s hands and take her to jail. Carmen tells Don José he will defy the order and let her go free—she knows he is in love with her, she says, because she can see he kept the flower she threw. Carmen sings the “Seguidilla” until Don José confesses his love for her and agrees to let her escape. Zuniga returns and orders Don José to lead Carmen to jail. As they depart, Carmen escapes the bonds Don José has loosened and runs away, laughing at Zuniga.
Carmen – Act Two
At Lillas Pasitas’ Inn, two months later.
Carmen and her companions Frasquita and Mercédès dance and play music to entertain officers at the inn, including Zuniga, who has come to woo Carmen. His attentions annoy Carmen, but Zuniga attributes her displeasure to Don José’s arrest for helping her escape. Zuniga tries to cheer her with the news that Don José was recently released.
Just then, they hear a parade passing, celebrating the Toréador Escamillo. Zuniga invites Escamillo to join them. Escamillo and the company sing of the glory of the bullfight and the victorious Toréador’s ultimate prize—love. Escamillo then declares his love for Carmen. She flirts with him but doesn’t reveal her feelings.
Two smugglers, Dancaïre and Remendado, arrive. They enlist Frasquita and Mercédès to help them transport stolen goods, but Carmen refuses to accompany them. Her friends demand to know why Carmen won’t help with the contraband as she has in the past, and she declares it is because she is in love with Don José! The smugglers and their assistants leave to solidify their plans.
Don José, newly released from jail, comes looking for Carmen. He declares his love for Carmen, and she rewards him with a song and a dance. As she dances, bugles sound, signaling all dragoons must return to camp. Don José tells Carmen he must go. She tests him, saying his haste is a sign of false love. To prove his love is true, Don José shows Carmen the flower she threw at him two months ago, which he saved to keep her memory close throughout his time in prison. Carmen is not convinced. If Don José really loves her, she says, he will run away with her and be free of the constrains of military life. Don José declares he cannot betray his flag and his honor and starts to leave.
Just as Don José reaches the door, there is a knock. Captain Zuniga has returned to the inn to woo Carmen. Finding her with Don José, Zuniga orders him to leave. Don José refuses. The two men begin to fight, but Carmen signals the smugglers, who have returned, to seize him. The smugglers lead Zuniga away to his death. Carmen and her friends convince Don José to desert the dragoons and join them in a life of thieving and roaming beyond the constraints of social and regimental regulations.
Carmen – Act Three
A remote hideout in the mountains above the valley where Don José’s home village lies.
The smugglers and their band hide out in the mountains. Don José looks down from the mountains towards his home village, mourning his mother’s misplaced faith in him. Carmen tells Don José he should return home to his mother, the thieving life is not for him. Her suggestion provokes him to anger. Carmen sees a threat behind his temper, but she takes this calmly, saying fate cannot be changed—it is all in the cards.
Taking their cue from Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès lay out cards to tell their fortunes. Their cards reveal futures of wealth and true love. Carmen turns over her cards, which foretell death for her and her lover! Carmen resigns herself to the unwavering hand of fate.
Dancaïre returns and warns of a company of soldiers ahead on patrol. Carmen, Frasquita, and Mercédès decide to flirt with the soldiers to distract them while the smugglers transport their contraband.
Micaëla has come to the smugglers’ hideout in search of Don José. She prays for God to watch over her as she musters the courage to confront Don José and Carmen. As she nears the hideout, she sees Don José aim his gun and fire, nearly hitting an approaching man. It is Escamillo, the Toréador, who has come to woo Carmen. Don José is angry he has a rival for Carmen’s affections and challenges Escamillo to a fight. Escamillo’s knife breaks during the fight, and, just as Don José is about to strike, Carmen arrives and stops them. Escamillo is happy to owe his life to Carmen and informs Don José he is welcome to a rematch any time. Before he leaves, Escamillo invites the band of smugglers to come watch him in the bullfight in Seville.
The smugglers prepare to leave when one of them spies Micaëla hiding behind a rock. Micaëla pleads with Don José to return home to his dying mother. Carmen also urges him to go. Knowing Carmen will leave him for Escamillo, Don José refuses. Don José starts to leave with Micaëla but stops when he sees Carmen running after Escamillo. Before leaving with Micaëla, Don José tells Carmen to beware, they will meet again!
Carmen – Act Four
A square in Seville, at the entrance of the amphitheater.
The square is filled with performers and peddlers, catering to the crowd arriving for the bullfight. The parade of Toréadors makes its way into the amphitheater. As the favored champion, Escamillo appears at the climax of the parade. Seeing Carmen, he declares his love for her, and she returns his affection, declaring she has never loved any man with the passion she has for Escamillo. Frasquita and Mercédès warn Carmen that Don José is hiding in the crowd, and they advise her to leave, but Carmen says she is not afraid.
The crowd enters the amphitheater, leaving Carmen alone in the square with Don José. He begs her to come away with him, thinking he can save her from her uncivilized life. Carmen, however, insists their relationship is ended—her love for him is dead. Hearing applause from the amphitheater, Carmen tries to enter to cheer Escamillo, but Don José blocks her way. As the crowd cheers the Toréador, Carmen throws Don José a ring he gave her, rejecting his love. Finally, Don José realizes Carmen loves Escamillo. In a jealous rage, Don José stabs Carmen with a knife. Don José cries in remorse as the crowd continues to cheer on the toréador, unaware of Carmen’s fate.
This synopsis was written by Bethany Wood, Opera Colorado’s Manager of Education & Community Engagement. Dr. Wood holds a B.F.A. in Drama from the University of Oklahoma and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the author of several articles on theatre history, as well as the book Women Adapting: Bringing Three Serials of the Roaring Twenties to Stage and Screen, winner of the Choice Outstanding Academic Title Prize from the American Library Association.
Now that you are an expert on Carmen, you should experience the production live and in person! Tickets to Opera Colorado’s production Carmen are available now for May of 2022. Buy Tickets>>
Do you recognize the music of Bizet’s Carmen? Have you seen a production before or just heard its music in commercials and movies? What else do you want to learn about the opera? Let us know in the comments below!