Mapping time and space in a transnational history of Carmen

by Clair Rowden was born from a longstanding collaboration between myself and Richard Langham Smith. Work on the Peters Edition score of Carmen (vocal score, 2013) led to a ‘Performance Urtext’ which brings to the printed page not only the musical text, but also many of the details of how Carmen was first performed (for more information, see our ‘Professional Practice’ tab). We had both combed through every bar of the opera and some sort of follow-up seemed inevitable. The idea of a book on ‘Carmen Abroad’ was hatched, focussed and refined.

From the outset we were encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of the idea by Cambridge University Press and we began to approach potential contributors. Then the project trifurcated: not only would we have a book, we would somehow bring together contributors in a conference, and we would have a website. At first, an international online video-conference was envisaged but practicalities – not least of time-zone differences – proved insurmountable. An International Initiatives Grant from Cardiff University and a Music & Letters Trust award provided the answer by providing funding for a two-day academic conference which would not have come into being without the energy, fruitful exchanges and support of all our collaborators.

Thus it was that our team first came together at Cardiff University in June 2017 for the conference Carmen Singer of the World, which took place in collaboration with the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World international singing competition. Alongside the academic conference, there was an inspiring workshop with opera director Annabel Arden on her new production of Carmen for the Grange Festival, and an ‘in conversation’ event between me and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa which drew in a substantial audience from the general public.

The academic conference elucidated the networks of exchange and influence in performances of Bizet’s iconic opera, from its Parisian premiere in 1875 up until the Second World War. For all of us, it was an eye-opener. So many issues emerged during the various papers given and still more in the fruitful discussions which followed, revealing a multitude of performance traditions, narratives and modes of storytelling for a single opera, situated in specific geographical, political, social and artistic contexts, with all the adaptations, appropriations, reconfigurations and fulfilment of audience expectations that required. At the same time, papers demonstrated how scores, singers, performers, sets, theatrical conventions and audience receptions crossed national boundaries.

Yet the boundless enthusiasm of the collaborators at the 2017 conference wanted to take the ‘Carmen Abroad’ idea still further forward. Over twenty academics pooled resources to create a global map and timeline of Carmen performances, making their research data readily available to a wide public in an appealing format which not only spoke about Carmen, but also about the transnational journeys the opera made. As the printed volume began to take shape, so too did the website – made possible originally through seedcorn funding from Cardiff University and the Royal College of Music – which was launched during the summer of 2018.

Following investment from the Leverhulme Trust in 2019, the website is now fully functional; continually growing and evolving, the site now holds records of over 900 ‘performance runs’ of Carmen, in venues from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro, from Helsinki to Melbourne, from Algiers to New Orleans.

But the convergence of diverse source materials brought with it a huge variety of data: the taxonomising, integration and clear representation of that thick data has been a truly daunting task necessitating careful editorial and curatorial control. The ongoing and collaborative nature of the data collection process has shaped the fundamental structure of the database which underpins the website, with an ever-evolving set of main categories uncovering new narratives and affording the site new potentialities with each addition. Currently the site is capable of displaying long-running productions in single locations as well as visualising the journeys of touring productions that never stayed still for long. 

Following the ‘spatial turn’ in the digital humanities (Jameson, 1991; Soja, 2009)[1] and widespread technological capabilities, the integrated map and timeline attempts to evoke a layered and multi-faceted sense of place, narrative, history, and memory; it allows for complex movement through the data in a way that takes advantage of the endless possibilities afforded to us by multidimensional, digital space for the representation and analysis of the performance of Carmen over time in both minute detail and vast breadth. 

In relation to flow maps, Thomas Sutherland (2018) refers to a move away from the representation of space towards the spatialisation of time.[2] not only spatialises time, but very literally theatricalises time, in a collision of time – what Barbara Adam has referred to as timing, tempo, duration and sequence – and physical performance spaces.[3] In addition, historical performances not only ‘take place’ but are intimately tied to specific physical spaces, in this case theatres, where each place in time is a unique configuration of power and people who share lived experiences with the political, social, industrial, artistic and natural worlds around them (Presner, Shepard, Kawano, 2014).[4] While many of these theatres remain standing today, either in their original state or on the same site, a significant number no longer exist, in cityscapes that have been thoroughly modified, some so much that the original address of a theatre (if we know it) can no longer be localised.

Moreover, we are dealing with whole ‘countries’ which no longer exist or which during different periods of their history were annexed or partitioned to different sovereign states. The attraction to overlay GIS (the Geographic Information Systems software) and Google with historical maps is therefore enticing, to be able to reflect geo-political changes, and create a map on which ‘performance runs’ are able to cross ‘real time’ borders, however much ‘disruption’ this may cause for the user (Cohen, 2011).[5]

Bringing together spatial-temporal narratives, visual design, embodied navigation and curatorial strategies, the website offers and will continue to offer new articulation and investigation of, and engagement with the cultural and performance history of one opera during a 70-year period. We hope you will experiment with and enjoy the website, hopefully alongside the Carmen Abroad volume.

The multi-authored volume Carmen Abroad examines the entanglements and complex interconnections which arise, not only from transfers and borrowings of performance traditions and processes of reception, but also of generalised images and projections of music, literature and drama, gender, class, race and ethnicity (Bachmann-Medick, 2016).[6] It does so through analysis of public comment, critical journalism, media and artistic responses to the opera, specific institutional constellations, social movements, cultural conceptions and many more besides. It elucidates the involvement of institutional networks, intellectual and performance practices, publishing and other processes of dissemination, that is to say the political-cultural fields of power and production. It provides specific understandings of localisation, or ‘glocalisation’ as it has become known (Robertson, 1995),[7] emphasising diversity and a multi-local production of opera.

A transnational approach to the work of a ‘single author’ or ‘authorial team’ nevertheless highlights a tension that underpins both the book and web mapping endeavours. Generally, transnational analyses tend to eliminate the concept of an ‘original’ work or its conceptual origin point in an attempt at ‘decolonising cultural studies’ (Bachmann-Medick, 2016). The notion of cultural mobility and transnational dialogue between different regions and cultures which waives the complex hierarchies of centre and periphery in favour of a broader notion of cultural exchange offers an attractive framework within which to analyse Carmen’s cultural capital as a global phenomenon (Greenblatt, 2009).[8]

Yet, there is an assumption that European artforms remain, if not universally applicable, then highly adaptable, laying claim to the highest level of authority and prestige (Bachmann-Medick, 2016). Thus any post-colonial transnational study of Carmen needs to highlight such asymmetries and relations of power rather than some unified cosmopolitanism, both within the ‘old world’ and between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ worlds. By moving away from and/or problematising narratives of exchange which foreground axes of foreign versus native, or original versus copy, we can attempt to achieve a more appropriate transnational methodology (Stam and Stobart; 2012).[9]

Denis Wood reminds us, however, that maps are performative, political artefacts with ritualistic functions, called into being ‘to perform the state’.[10] Thus in creating a map or various historical geo-political maps, are we perpetuating a colonial and outdated model that is antinomical to the modern transnational study of culture? In addition, the presence of a timeline encourages an approach which hierarchises performances as Carmen #1, Carmen #2, etc. The tension of this unhappy juxtaposition which could be seen to negate multi-directional cultural flows lurks, therefore, not only behind the transnational analysis but also in the visual representation of the digital map and timeline.

Moreover, if the technology used to create the map and timeline is based on software such as Google maps which is based itself on the affordances, assumptions and ideologies of standardised (Westernised) cultural practices, are we not shooting ourselves (and our study) in the foot? If transnational studies aim to highlight the asymmetries of power and production in a post-colonial reading of cultural exchange, we need to highlight not only the strategic and pragmatic decisions on which our maps are built, but also to ‘deconstruct’ these most ubiquitous of knowledge platforms, to strategically and systematically create fault lines and fissures in them to enable a multiplicity of storytelling maps that foreground alternative histories, rather than smooth over the apparently seamless expansionist ‘flows’ of colonial and/or neoliberal capitalism (Presner, Shepard and Kawano, 2014; Sutherland, 2018).[11]

With both the book and the website therefore, we aim to engage intensively with a large number of different ‘stories’ which circulate back and forth between different national and regional traditions and cultures of opera, and which probe the causes and consequences of those exchanges. Moreover, the last section examines the cultural ‘work’ of the opera in Soviet Russia, in Japan in the era of Westernisation, in southern regionalist France and in Carmen’s ‘homeland’, Spain.

The ways in which we create ‘fissures’ which enable the surfacing of many different storytelling maps with regard to the website are in constant development, and while the digital humanities attempt to rethink the media in which cultural criticism and historical investigations are undertaken, we perhaps have still some way to go. 


First, thanks must go to Henry Morgan who has accompanied this Carmen journey in all its different forms over the last few years. His support and intellectual curiosity for the website, the ‘Musical Mapping’ conference, held at Cardiff University in June 2019 with support from the Leverhulme Trust, along with the many other public engagement events has been invaluable and inestimable. The moral and intellectual support of all the international participants of ‘Musical Mapping’, alongside the AHRC ‘Mapping Music History’ network, led by Jonathan Hicks (University of Aberdeen) and Louis Epstein (St. Olaf College), is also greatly appreciated. For the initial website design and its construction we are indebted to Tim Reader of Long White Digital, and for its superb redevelopment to RJ Ramey of Auut Studio.

The team of contributors and their exchanges and interactions have been of incomparable value and also enjoyment. Special mention goes (in no particular order) to Naomi Matsumoto, Ulla-Britta Broman-Kananen, Matthew Franke, Bruno Forment, Laura Moeckli, Michela Niccolai and Lola San Martín Arbide for our conversations which have nourished both our own and Carmen’s transnational journeys!


[1] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London, 1991, p. 154; Edward W. Soja, ‘Taking Space Personally’, in Barney Warf and Santa Arias eds., The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London, 2009, pp. 11-35.

[2] Thomas Sutherland, ‘Mapping the space of flows: considerations and consequences’, in Sybille Lammes, Chris Perkins, Alex Gekker, Sam Hind, Clancy Wilmott and Daniel Evans eds., Time for mapping: Cartographic temporalities, Manchester, 2018, pp. 175-196, at p. 176.

[3] Barbara Adam, ‘Of timespaces, futurescapes and timeprints [Online]’, cited in Time for mapping, p. 5.

[4] Todd Presner, David Shepard and Yoh Kawano, HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities, Cambridge, MA, 2014, p. 53.

[5] Sara Cohen, ‘Urban Musicscapes: mapping Music-making in Liverpool’, in Roberts (ed.), Mapping Cultures, pp. 123-143, at p. 141.

[6] Doris Bachmann-Medick (ed.), A Trans/National Study of Culture: A Translational Perspective, Berlin and Boston, 2016, pp. 1-22.

[7] Both the terms globalization and glocalization are attributed to Roland Robertson. See: Globalization: social theory and global culture, London, 1992; ‘Glocalization: Time-space and homogeneity-heterogeneity’, in M. Featherstone, S. Lash and R. Robertson (eds), Global Modernity, London, 1995, pp. 25-44.

[8] Stephen Greenblatt, Cultural Mobility. A manifesto, Cambridge, 2009.

[9] Robert Stam and Ella Shohat, Race in Translation: Culture Wars around the Postcolonial Atlantic, New York and London, 2012, p. xviii.

[10] Denis Wood, ‘The Anthropology of Cartography’, in Les Roberts (ed.), Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice, Performance, London, 2012, pp. 280-303.

[11] Presner, Shepard and Kawano, HyperCities, p. 124; Sutherland, ‘Mapping the space of flows’, p. 176, p. 193.

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