Bourgeois respectability was the main characteristic of audiences at the Opéra Comique during the 1870s. Up to a quarter of the seats were traditionally occupied by demure young couples celebrating their engagement, the remainder being largely filled with families keen on entertainment guaranteed not to bring a blush to the cheek of the most innocent maiden. Lulled over the years by the charming and craftsmanlike trifles of Auber, Boieldieu and Ambroise Thomas, they were scandalised by Carmen and its portrayal of a lustful gypsy and her disgraceful love life. It was, said critics searching for the worst insult they could hurl, positively ‘Wagnerian’.

Today, of course, the sensational failure of Carmen at its premiere on March 3, 1875, is a matter of surprise. The 36-year-old Bizet, already ill and clinically depressed, died three months later at a time when the management was giving away tickets in a desperate attempt to fill the half-empty theatre. Convinced that his opera had failed, Bizet went to his death unaware that in the following year Carmen was to launch on a triumphant international career. Tchaikovsky, whose own music shows traces of Bizet’s influence, predicted that it would be the world’s most famous opera. He was not far wrong. The tunes familiar to people who have never set foot inside an opera house and who do not even know the composer’s name.

When was Bizet born?

Registered at birth in 1838 as Alexandre César Léopold, though soon to be known more matily as Georges, Bizet was the only child of a Parisian wig-maker turned musician. Precociously gifted and encouraged by his father, Bizet entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10, winning numerous prizes including the much-sought Prix de Rome in 1857. Soon after his 17th birthday he had written a sprightly Symphony in C and a year later entered a competition sponsored by Offenbach to set the one-act operetta Le Docteur Miracle. Bizet’s version of Le Docteur Miracle was a fluent confection à la Rossini, winning him joint first prize alongside Charles Lecocq.

The Prix de Rome earned Bizet three happy years in the Italian capital where he revelled in the national culture, creating the little comic opera Don Procopio in 1859. Back home in Paris he worked on various projects that came to nothing. When his friend Saint-Saëns, equally frustrated in his theatrical ambitions, suggested that they should concentrate on symphonic music, Bizet replied: ‘I need the theatre. I can do nothing without it.’ Yet he was also a magnificent pianist. The Jeux d’enfants piano suite is a tender and enchanting evocation of childhood, and the powerful Variations chromatiques present a formidable challenge to the player. Best known among his handful of songs is the ‘Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe’ – itself a miniature drama enhanced by exotic touches.

While still in his early teens, Bizet had learned directly from Gounod, but struggled to find success on the operatic stage. His first full-length opera La jolie fille de Perth (1867), was based, at a distance, on Walter Scott’s novel and hampered by an insane libretto. Equally doomed was La coupe du roi de Thulé (1868), which foreshadows Carmen with its plot of a young man captivated by the charms of a temptress. Even the operas that did reach the stage suffered an ambiguous fate, such as Djamileh (1872), an opéra comique in an oriental setting that only gained warm support from a small number of discerning musicians, including Massenet and Saint-Saëns.

Bizet’s music for L’Arlésienne, which captures all the tragic beauty of Alphonse Daudet’s moving drama, also failed to please the general public. Quick-tempered and too proud to curry favour with theatre managers, however, Bizet refused to compromise his artistic principles. His marriage at the age of 30 to the temperamental Geneviève Halévy – the daughter of opera composer Fromenthal Halévy, one of his Conservatoire teachers – only added to his professional struggles. The Halévy circle disapproved of Bizet, regarding him as a ‘Bohemian’ without a future. They probably knew of his affairs with prima donnas, of his dealings with prostitutes, and of the illegitimate son he had fathered by his mother’s maid.

Bizet lived in the topsy-turvy world of the theatre, harassed not only by the whims of prima donnas and the vagaries of managements but also by the fickleness of public taste. Among various projects which never came to fruition were the grandiose Ivan IV, not to mention other operas inspired by works of Hugo, Hoffman, Cervantes, Molière, and, most unlikely of all, Richardson’s 18th-century novel Clarissa Harlowe. One opera that did win through and is still performed today was Les pêcheurs de perles (1863). Like Djamileh it has an exotic setting, in this case the island once called Ceylon. The improbable plot involves two pearl fishermen in love with the same woman, a fanatical high priest, and the conflicts between friendship, love and religion.

In August 1874, Bizet, whose health was never robust, suffered from abscesses in his mouth and throat. He convalesced in the country and there quickly completed the score of Carmen, based on Prosper Mérimée’s classic novel which tells of the passionate love affair between the gypsy girl and soldier who eventually murders her. With Carmen, he was to revolutionise French opera, sweeping away a stylised convention that depicted heroines of snow-white purity, clean-cut heroes and pasteboard villains. He replaced them with men and women of feeling and passion. His subtle characterisation embodies among other psychological insights Mérimée’s remark that women and cats don’t come when you call them… but when you don’t. This was a fact of life that Bizet, with his varied experience of mistresses and other women, could wryly acknowledge.

We named Bizet one of the best French composers

James Harding