Leading Ladies: Carmen on Stage and in Film

May 2, 2017

Most people know the ditty about the toreador not spitting on the floor. 

Carmen, filled with tunes long made popular, has a foolproof story—sultry gypsy seduces clueless corporal and dumps him for a bullfighter. Wouldn't you? Unhappy corporal follows Carmen and the toreador to the bullring and stabs her to death while the crowd cheers on the the bull—the animal, I mean. Curtain. Applause.

But there's a lot more to it than that.

Opera Columbus presents the most popular opera of all, Georges Bizet's Carmen, this week at the Southern Theatre. Showtimes are at 1 p.m. May 3 (public dress rehearsal), 7:30 p.m. May 5 and 2 p.m. May 7.

Based on a French novel by Prosper Merimee, Carmen has elements of sadism, murder, humor and charm. As a stage director friend of mine once said, "You gotta like Carmen." The character, he meant.

Carmen must have an indescribable quality that makes you not want to take your eyes off of her.

The greatest Carmen I ever saw live was French soprano Regine Crespin, who was in her 50s at the time.

Carmen was first filmed—silently, of course—in 1905.

Ten years later, Cecil B. DeMille filmed Carmen on the beach in Santa Monica. The country's hottest heartthrob, Wallace Reid (1891-1923), was cast as Don Jose. For Carmen, DeMille passed over Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Theda Bara and went to the source—opera. He cast the most famous operatic Carmen of the time, a baseball player's daughter from Melrose, Massachusetts, named Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967).

An opera star in a silent film of an opera. Is this insulting? Not to Farrar.

She got to rest her voice, and spend the summer in California when the opera houses back East were closed. She'd been a star in Berlin, Paris and London, but those countries were off limits during World War I—better to stay in the U.S. and make some cash. Plus, her affair with conductor Arturo Toscanini was getting public and messy.

Farrar arrived from the East Coast in a private railway car. She was accompanied by secretaries, maids, her pianist and a couple of young gentleman whose purpose was not much more than decorative. Not to mention her own private orchestra.

Diva status aside, Farrar became a good trouper. The beach in Santa Monica isn't always fun at 5 a.m., but there she was. DeMille's Carmen—it wasn't Bizet's—became Farrar's Carmen, thank you very much.

The film opened at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with a live orchestra. It was a smash. Farrar made 10 more films, including a biopic of Joan of Arc.   

Here, 102 years later, is Farrar's Carmen, directed by DeMille and co-starring Reid. Watch her.