Great art, harmful stereotypes, and a 21st-century dilemma
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a four-part series examining race and representation in opera. The next three installments will appear in Cues editions for The Snowy Day, The Magic Flute, and Turandot.
If you could read Greek, and if you owned a copy of Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen, the basis for Bizet’s opera, you would notice that the tone of the story is revealed in its opening inscription by fifth century poet Palladas:
“Every woman is as bitter as gall. But she has two good moments: one in bed, the other at her death.”
Opening a novella by saying women are only good for sex is a far cry from our 21st-century view of Bizet’s famous opera, an interpretation that paints Carmen as a “free-spirited, independent woman” who simply happened upon a murderously possessive partner in Don José. If we look a bit more closely, however, we discover that the sexualization of the title character—and, more specifically, the exoticism of her ethnic minority—is precisely what Carmen is about.
Carmen has always been called a “g*psy,” an exonym for the Romani people that has long been used as a pejorative slur, often to justify oppressive public policy. It is a term that I’ll only use in sourced quotations in this article, edited as above, and one I encourage all of us to excise from our vocabularies because of its history—and its present—as a racist slur. It can easily be replaced with accepted endonyms for the ethnic group: Rom, Roma, or Romani people.
The slur’s etymology comes from “Egyptian,” a case of mistaken identity for the Roma who came to Europe through northern Africa. Linguistic and genetic evidence point to the Roma coming to Europe from northern India. Other groups of Roma that came through eastern Europe were also mistakenly identified as originating in Bohemia, hence another misnomer exonym for the Romani people, bohemians. (That exonym, on the other hand, has not historically been used as a pejorative slur in justifying oppressive public policy.)
The Romani people arrived in southern Spain through northern Africa as early as the 15th century, and possibly even centuries earlier. But as the various Spanish monarchies united and consolidated their power, the Roma were at the receiving end of oppressive policies. In 1609, King Philip III of Spain expelled all Roma from Spain, but, without any friendly politico-religious territories nearby, they stayed in the country as fugitives.
Forced assimilation or death followed the Roma in Spain for the next few generations. They survived by living on the fringes of society, always ready to flee at a moment’s notice, some even operating in illegal economies of drugs and smuggling. (These 17th-century realities, shaped by Spain’s public policy, provide the foundation for the most common stereotypes of the Romani people.)
In 1749, Ferdinand VI enacted La Gran Redada, also known as “The Great Raid” or “The Great G*psy Roundup.” The interior minister, in ordering the imprisonment of all Roma in Spain, announced, “These people called g*psies have no religion; they must be put in prison, and we will end this evil race.” These public policies of 17th- and 18th-century Spain, according to researchers Ismael Cortés and Cayetano Fernández of the universities of Jaume I and Granada, “established a moral hierarchy based on ethnic belonging and religious faith, and shaped the image of Roma in Spain as evil, godless and lazy people, and the enemies of Spanish values.”
La Gran Redada was only 82 years before Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel that perhaps attempted to humanize Esmeralda—originally not Roma in the Hugo, but adopted as an orphan—but that nevertheless fed the narrative of the lawless, faithless, “evil race” of Romani people. Indeed, while Claude Frollo is seen now as the villain, his song in the Disney cartoon—which did turn Esmeralda into a Romani woman—represents what was the common stereotype of Romani women through the 18th and 19th centuries: that their eroticized presence was the very reason that “righteous” men “turn[ed] to sin.”
So, too, does Don José reflect the prevailing cultural attitudes toward Romani women in 19th-century Europe. A 21st-century, post-#MeToo opera industry will frame Carmen as the independent feminist and Don José as the possessive villain, yet the historical and cultural contexts in which Mérimée and Bizet wrote and adapted this story place the blame squarely on Carmen’s shoulders. José was a meek, humble Basque soldier before meeting Carmen, only too willing to listen to his mother and marry the homely, Christian girl Micaela. But the lawless, faithless Romani woman—who reads fortunes in cards, smuggles contraband, and lives on the outskirts of civilization—enters his life and corrupts him; therefore, tragedy ensues.
If it seems outdated to point to 18th- and 19th-century cultural contexts of Romani women, let me offer two—of many—unfortunate current events. In 2009, French authorities ordered all Roma to be expelled to their countries of origin, violating European Union regulations. In 2013, the co-founder of the Fidesz political party in Hungary—which still enjoys supermajority control in the country today—uttered these horrific words: “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. […] These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved—immediately and regardless of the method.”
When art perpetuates harmful stereotypes that can influence the culture around them and, further, the oppressive policy that follows, what degree of responsibility connects them? Does Bizet’s Carmen have any indirect, cultural influence on the 21st-century examples of Roma oppression detailed above? It’s impossible to quantify, yet hundreds of years of censorship records (think Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Verdi’s Rigoletto, among many) indicate that policymakers have long been aware that artistic depictions can and do influence contemporary cultural attitudes. As I often like to point out in my lectures contextualizing opera’s history, art is neither created nor consumed in a vacuum.
So far, I’ve only offered up a dilemma: inauthentic representations in opera often perpetuate harmful stereotypes of non-Western European cultures. So, what do we do about that? The next three articles in this series will explore some answers in the context of three more operas in our season: The Snowy Day, The Magic Flute, and Turandot. These articles won’t pretend to have all the answers, but rather will seek to illuminate some possibilities worth considering, while offering historical justifications for those possibilities.
For now, as you enjoy the exciting, powerful, and heartbreakingly beautiful music of Bizet’s Carmen, think about how the title character is perceived in the 21st century. Is Carmen an evil temptress who brings shame, dishonor, and tragedy to her community and to Don José? Is she a fiercely independent, sexually liberated woman who becomes the victim of a murderously possessive man? Or is she somewhere in between?
We have come a long way from the story’s original historical context in how we view Carmen as a woman and a victim. We can add another layer, too, in how we view her as a Romani woman. Does Carmen’s race influence your perception of her character? Would Carmen as an opera succeed dramaturgically if she were not a Roma? Listen and watch for the representations of Carmen as a Romani woman, and consider: would the opera lose any of its power, drama, or beauty—any of the artistic merit that makes it so immensely popular—if she were not a Romani woman?