Feminist endings: challenges of operatic staging in the twenty-first century

By Clair Rowden and Lola San Martín Arbide

4 December 2020

Drawn from ‘Final féministe: les défis de la mise en scène au XXIème siècle. #JeSuisCarmen’, in Claire Lozier and Isabelle Marc (eds.), Carmen revisitée (Peter Lang, 2020), pp. 150-174.

Book available here.

Clair Rowden, Cardiff University
Lola San Martín Arbide, New Europe College, Bucharest

Perennially described as a femme fatale, Carmen – the iconic and mythological character – is as much the fruit of the repetition of a number of stereotypes as the accumulation of a series of scenic innovations. Her character, both malleable yet instantly recognisable, has made Mérimée’s anti-heroine a role of predilection for the projection of new significations within the canvas of one of the cornerstones of the French operatic repertoire. In today’s political context where violence towards women, both ancient and modern, has been spectacularly splashed across all media platforms, this article proposes a reading of recent productions of Carmen which refuse to stage the opera’s ritual violence. Indeed it is one of the main reasons that opera directors today modify the drama, proposing alternative endings, more or less relocated in time and place, in order to offer audiences spectacles which project examples of both femininity and masculinity considered less toxic by contemporary society.

Of course, certain critics and spectators are not open to such modifications, of either staging or in the ‘text’ of the opera itself in such an iconic work. As Jason Tesauro put it when writing about the 2018 Rome production by the Argentinian director Valentina Carrasco which situated the drama at the border between the US and Mexico, the public knew, even before the curtain went up, that this wasn’t going to be ‘your grandmother’s Carmen.’1 Like all artistic products, opera is a genre which is adaptable to contemporary mores, whether they be social, theatrical or sexual. In addition, the meta-narration created around a production by the critics and promotional media encourages social and artistic debate which can aid acceptance of this ‘new opera by Bizet’. At the same time however, opinion can be manipulated by reactionary stances and the expression of extreme and polarised opinions which try to shut down debate before it even gets going!

The projection of feminine stereotypes in Bizet’s opera went as far as to make Carmen one of the stars of new musicology at the end of the 1980s. Both Susan McClary’s Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (1991), and, of course, her Georges Bizet: Carmen (1992) denounce not only the sexist elements of traditional musicology but also the issues of gender, race and class at work in Carmen. Rather than feminine endings, we wanted to examine feminist endings, as well as the phenomen of modifying the story and dénouement of Carmen in recent productions by Leo Muscato and Barrie Kosky (with short remarks on other productions) and their receptions. In today’s gender studies and society which presents a far more intersectional feminism than 30 years ago, we wanted to examine what was happening to Carmen in the twenty-first century.

In a new successful production at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence in January 2018, the end of the story was rewritten by the director Leo Muscato on the advice of the theatre director Cristiano Chiarot. This production resonated with the contemporary Weinstein scandal. From October 2017, the abuse of women by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and a wider culture of sexual harassment within the cinema industry was revealed. Thousands of women responded by sharing their own stories of mistreatment on social media via the #MeToo movement. Muscato’s Carmen is redolent of similar claims denouncing feminicide. The final scene in the opera ends with a reversal: it is no longer Don José who stabs Carmen, but Carmen who shoots José with a pistol in an act of self-defense. The role de Carmen was sung by the mezzo-soprano Veronica Simeoni. In her words, the rewritten dénouement screamed ‘basta la violenza !’ in a contemporary Italian context where nearly 100 women are still murdered each year by men, and where the second performance was marked by another tragic killing2

Veronica Simeone as Carmen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Theatre (MMF) in Florence. Credit Pietro Paolini, TerraProject, Maggio Fiorentino.

This version of Carmen stimulated online reactions under the hashtag #Carmengate, mocking the way in which it perverted this so-called monument of the Opéra-Comique. Prevalent among these commentaries was the fact that Bizet’s opera was essentially a feminist one, even in 1875, and that therefore there was no need to instigate moralising changes to the scenario precisely because the protagonist always privileges her independence and defends her liberty above all else. This interpretation – already upheld 40 years ago by Catherine Clément in L’Opéra ou la défaite des femmes (1979, translated into English in 1989 as Opera or the Undoing of Women) – compounded by a misfiring gun prop at the premiere made a mockery of this anti-feminicide Carmen ((Théo, Rampazzo, ‘Conspué, le Carmen anti-féminicide de Florence tourne au fiasco’, Le Figaro, 10 January 2018 [accessed February 2019 at http://www.lefigaro.fr/theatre/2018/01/10/03003-20180110ARTFIG00194-conspue-le-carmen-anti-feminicide-de-florence-tourne-au-fiasco.php].)) 

The notion of an independent and sexually liberated Carmen conforms to the ideological stance of third-wave feminism which lays claim to sexual exploitation through the male gaze as a means to autonomy and a sense of subversive control.3 Indeed a large number of contemporary pop and hip-hop stars, such as Beyoncé, have created skimpily and suggestively dressed public avatars who dance and sing songs which are sexually explicit in their texts and stage presentation. It is perhaps no coincidence then that Beyoncé’s film debut was in Carmen: A Hip-Hopera (Robert Townsend, 2001). Indeed, from the nineteenth century onwards, Carmen could have been idolised as a pioneering feminist icon had not her promise of emancipation turned into tragic death. Thus, this auto-exploitation construed as empowerment becomes counter-productive: without the threat of murder which ultimately marks her as a heroine, or a martyr to ‘the cause’, Carmen is simply abominable: no longer a feminist but what the worst type of misogyny, in line with the media witch hunt against ‘bra-burning’ feminists in the late 1960s,4 has termed a feminazi. ((Irene Savio, ‘Una versión de “Carmen” que denuncia la violencia machista incendia Italia’, El Periódico, 10 January 2018 [accessed February 2019 at https://www.elperiodico.com/es/ocio-y-cultura/20180110/polemica-italia-opera-carmen-denuncia-violencia-machista-6543318].)) 

Criticisms of this type are founded on the misunderstanding of feminist demands of equality of all sexes which have been interpreted by the conservative right-wing as a ‘gender ideology’ or even propaganda which supposedly destroys traditional values.5 According to this perspective, ‘violence against women’ does not exist in its own right as men suffer similar attacks. The murder of Don José by Carmen in Florence was therefore understood by the most conservative critics as a warning of what could be to come: a wave of revenge killings by armed women seeking justice after centuries of submission. If such a preposterous scenario actually came to pass, there would be grounds to be afraid.

Muscato’s Carmen in Florence. Credit Pietro Paolini, TerraProject, Maggio Fiorentino.

Yet other critics attacked Muscato’s production as being motivated by political correctness. Muscato commented on Chiarot’s idea, saying ‘he believes that in this era, marked by a plague of violence towards women, it is in inconceivable that we applaud the murder of one of their number.’6 Nevertheless, this modification of the dénouement can be read as a wilful act to create a scandal and attract audiences. However, the contrasting reactions to this political gesture, backed by the centre-left mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, were instrumentalised by Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party, to denounce the initiative as superficial.7 Thus the political divide over extremely sensitive issues relating to women, gender and feminism was clearly marked while other political issues treated by the production incited little or no public debate.

For in Muscato’s production, the Seville of the 1820s becomes a Roma settlement during the 1980s, and Don José cuts the figure of a riot policeman bringing a gypsy camp under control. Thus, related questions about immigration, poverty and the oppression of minorities in Italian society went unheard. Right-wing critics remained silent on these potentially more provocative political revisions, preferring to seize upon the feminicide turned badly executed homicide. It would be lamentable indeed if such a staged gesture was interpreted as merely an expression of political correctness. Yet we are in an era of ‘lightweight’ feminism, where the brand ‘feminism’ is used to market a whole host of artistic products in modern, capitalist, patriarchal society to a large sector of consumers always searching for the latest trend but no more sensitive to questions which touch the lives (and deaths) of women.8

Beyoncé at the 2014 Video Music Awards.

Some contemporary productions restore Carmen’s powers which patriarchal misogny had denied her. Thus Barrie Kosky’s postmodern production, mounted in Frankfurt in May 2016 and performed at London’s Covent Garden in February 2018, played with gender and genre fluidity, alongside Carmen’s feminine beauty and animal attraction. This production uproots her and provides her with multiple identities: it proposes a Carmen who plays as many different Carmens as there are spectators, including the one for whom death is just another possible scenario, and from which she gets up, shrugging her shoulders. In the middle of the overture, Carmen, dressed as a toreador in disco pink with yellow stockings, fixes her gaze on the audience as she descends a monumental Ziegfeld Follies-like staircase.

Paula Murrihy in Kosky’s Carmen in Frankfurt, 2016. Credit Monika Rittershaus.

As she comes stage front, a woman’s voice is heard delivering a quasi-ethnographic, or less generously, an objectifying and voyeuristic text by Pierre de Bourdeilles, dit Brantôme (1537-1614), which describes the physical traits of a beautiful woman, as evoked by Mérimée in his novella9 As Kosky plays with gender perceptions, the spectator enters into a relationship with – or alternatively distances him/herself from – this Carmen in pants who is juxtaposed with a specific canon of female beauty delivered by a female voice-over and which actually describes the characteristics of a beautiful Spanish woman as opposed to a gypsy, so is indeed describing all that Carmen is not (according to Mérimée). Moreover, Carmen’s costume presents her as an ‘inversion’ of the macho toreador whose (somewhat feminised) traditional canary yellow outfit with pink stockings is here reversed.

Galli-Marié in Paris, 1884.

Later in the ‘Habanera’ – Carmen’s entrance aria during which the first Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié, had succeeded in creating a moment of pure stage genius through her disturbing physicality which immediately marked Carmen out as ‘other’, musically, socially and ethnically – Kosky plays the grotesque card. This Carmen enters the stage dressed as a gorilla and as the aria proceeds, she strips off her costume to reveal an androgynous outfit of straight black slacks, a white shirt and black tie, and slicked back hair. As she once again descends the monumental staircase she passes from our closest animal cousin to the transgender in order to destabilise in an original way the spectators of today. This allusion to Marlene Dietrich dressed as a gorilla in Blonde Venus is moreover, rich in diverse meanings:10 a young woman from an ethnic minority is represented by a great ape who transforms into a lithe young man at the same time as the gorilla and its primitive emotions act as a mirror for human behaviour.

Paula Murrihy in Kosky’s Carmen in Frankfurt, 2016. Credit Monika Rittershaus.

Kosky’s Carmen is neither femme fatale nor the subject of feminist debate and yet she participates fully in a global reflection on sexuality, seduction and Carmen’s powers over both men and women. She moves on a new stage beyond the binary male-female in order to speak to more abstract binaries such as attraction and repulsion, light and dark, action and inertia, good and evil. In addition, the transferal of all the storytelling to a voice-over – which deprives the singers of text and spoken voices – serves to represent Carmen in a series of stylised, episodic and isolated vignettes. She is once again the object of the narration and not its agent. She submits to the drama which for Kosky is no more than a means to interrogate the subjectivity of his characters, as well as his audiences.

Opera is a musical and theatrical spectacle which historically, has always been an adaptable artform. Since its premiere, Bizet’s Carmen has been modified to suit a multitude of interpretations and an infinity of contexts. Such adaptations reveal the limits of what audiences are able to accept in relation to a canonic work. Thus, the scandal following  Muscato’s Carmen in Florence highlights that while much is possible in terms of productions, the operatic ‘text’ remains sacrosanct. While the will to bring an misogynist opera up to date within the context of intense debate over violence against women is legitimate, the ways in which to do so remain hard to imagine. Accusations of opportunism were lodged against the ‘lightweight feminism’ of Muscato’s production, a brand of feminism more concerned with marketing the artistic product than with any actual revolt. The failure of Chiarot and Muscato’s project which aimed to stimulate debate over the representation of women, gender relations on dramatic stages, as well as the strict links between spectacle and reality was probably predictable while this impetus for change came from two men. The fact that its critics were unable to admit that this Carmen was motivated by real concerns over gender equality reflects therefore a wariness linked to the fact that power – in theatres as elsewhere – remains predominantly in male hands. A Carmen who killed José in an act of self-defense directed by a woman may well have been received differently. As for Kosky’s production, it plays on current questioning of gender, and gender fluidity, and provides a terrain for reflection on relationship dynamics (in all their diversity and variety) alongside group dymanics in a world where issues of sexuality and cruelty are omnipresent. And yet, without the meta-narration of this production presented in different promotional media, many of Kosky’s ideas and images would have remained opaque, even to the most hardened operagoers.

Even when the libretto by Meilhac and Halévy is left untouched, the society of Bizet’s time is long gone. The mere choice to mount Carmen in the political and social context described here signals an engagement in the debate about violence against women and a denunciation of the barbaric feminicides which are taking place today. Despite the political misappropriations and anachronistic hijackings of the press, it is nevertheless highly unlikely that a contemporary public can read in Carmen an endorsement of violence towards women as a way of defending the values of former times. We can but hope and imagine a future where the representation of feminicide as entertainment is merely the trace of a bygone era, and where the scene of Don José stabbing Carmen to death at the end of the opera will be understood as an echo of the ‘sacrifices’ of women in the name of phallocracy and barbaric practices.


  1. Jason Tesauro, ‘Rome Production of Bizet’s Carmen Features ICE Agents, #MeToo’, Bloomberg.com, 19 June 2018 [accessed February 2019 at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-19/rome-production-of-bizet-s-carmen-features-ice-agents-metoo]. []
  2. ‘Contre les violences faites aux femmes, un metteur en scène revisite la fin de “Carmen”’, Le Monde, 5 January 2018 [accessed February 2019 at https://www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2018/01/05/contre-les-violences-faites-aux-femmes-un-metteur-en-scene-revisite-la-fin-de-carmen_5237894_3246.html]. []
  3. Melissa Klein, ‘Duality and Definition: Young Feminism and the Alternative Music Community’, in Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake (eds.), Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c. 1997), p. 220. []
  4. Imelda Whelehan, Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to ‘Post-Feminism’ (New York: New York University Press, 1995), p. 6. []
  5. Gabriela Wiener, ‘La Reconquista en España no es de Vox, es de las mujeres’, The New York Times, 7 February 2019 [accessed February 2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/es/2019/02/07/espanavox-antifeministas/]. []
  6. ‘Contre les violences faites aux femmes’ []
  7. James Politi, ‘A happy opera ending sparks a #Me Too debate in Italy’, The Financial Times, 16 January 2018 [accessed March 2019 at https://www.ft.com/content/64e4c704-faac-11e7-a492-2c9be7f3120a]. []
  8. Andi Zeisler, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (New York: Public Affairs, 2016). []
  9. Prosper Mérimée, Théâtre de Clara Gazul, Romans et Nouvelles, ed. Jean Mallion and Pierre Salomon, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1978), pp. 951, 1573. []
  10. Millie Taylor, ‘Playing with Meaning in the Opera House’, Carmen, Royal Opera House Covent Garden programme, February 2018, pp. 28-32. []

Clair Rowden and Lola San Martín Arbide

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