By considering a dramatic performance through a theoretical framework, it is possible to see past the surface meaning by focusing on certain elements or themes that provide a deeper understanding of the piece. Often, it is possible to draw on several of these critical frameworks, looking at how they interact with and inform each other; so creating an awareness of how the piece is constructed with parts of a whole.
In terms of a complex operatic performance, such as Bizet’s Carmen, there are so many of these individual artistic elements, dramatic and musical, as well as overlapping themes, that it is difficult to achieve an in-depth understanding without using multiple frameworks. This also highlights the importance of selecting appropriate frameworks in order to create an insightful analysis. For example, in terms of an historic art form such as the operatic adaptation of Carmen, an analysis under new historicism would tell us a lot not only about the development of the form, but also the cultural implications of the plot. With music as the main language, a theory of musical semiotics would be extremely useful in this context for providing a reliable interpretation beyond that of the subjective emotional response. Finally, a broader theoretical approach, such as the application of feminism and gender subversion, would aid in a complete understanding of Carmen due to its close links with the dramatic content and the contemporary conventions of operatic characterisation, as well as how it interacts with both new historicism and the language of musical semiotics.
Through the frame of new historicism, it is possible to see Carmen as a product of its historical context, as well as a tool by which to understand cultural and musical development. The subject matter of Carmen is particularly interesting under an analysis of this kind. In mid 19th century Europe, the role of ‘Dangerous Other’ had been passed from Turks to Jews and finally to Gypsies and literature and composition was littered with reference to Gypsy culture. This ‘otherness’, along with the ‘fabled looseness of the cigarreras’ established Carmen, in the 19th Century mind, as a stereotypical gypsy; a temptress. This racist 19th Century western perception of gypsy culture failed to recognise anything that didn’t adhere to this stereotype, even such striking dissonances as the chaste dress of all gypsy women, which Adrian Mourby recognises as protectiveness of ‘womenfolk’ apparent in all ‘vulnerable minorities’.
In new historic terms, it is the form which is most important in highlighting artistic development. Unlike Mozart’s foray into Spanish culture in Don Giovanni, Bizet creates a soundscape fitting with the content of the piece. By using compositional techniques such as the Andalusian cadence (or the minor descending tetrachord) which are inherent in the flamenco music of Spanish and Gypsy culture, Bizet creates a strong relationship between the music and drama, so advancing the operatic form in its dramatic scope and plausibility.
As musicologist Joseph Kerman notes, feminist criticism is generally absent from the study of music-drama, especially in the dangerous territory of operatic performance, where the conventions of ‘femininity’, as well as gender subversion due to ‘breeches roles’, are normalised. This highlights the importance of applying new theory to dramatic works in order to obtain a deeper contemporary understanding. In Carmen, it is possible to approach feminism on two levels; simply with the dramatic events, and simultaneously through the context of musical semiotics. As music is the primary language of operatic performance, it is important to use the theory of musical semiotics to support, and see if there is any foundation in, a feminist approach.
Literary critic Catherine Clemént makes the important distinction between women’s role in opera as a form, and their role within the dramatic content; ‘No prima donna, no opera. But the role...is not the deciding role...women perpetually sing their eternal undoing’. This is certainly true in Carmen, where the eponymous heroine, possibly ‘the most feminist’ character throughout the operatic tradition, meets a tragic death at the hands of a man; in Carmen’s case, Don José. This male dominance is not only evident in the final sequence, but is subliminally transferred to the audience throughout through the construction of the music (specifically Prelude and Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre) which conjures combative, ‘masculine’ bullfighting. Described by Clemént as ‘one of opera’s inspired and unconscious transferences’, this application of musical semiotics highlights to us the inescapability of Carmen’s feminine condition; existing in relation to men, with ‘music devoted to a woman convok[ing] virile heroes’.
It is Carmen’s attempt to achieve freedom from this stifling social condition, both musically and dramatically, that, for Clemént , establishes Carmen as a strong feminist figure. This is no better demonstrated than in the modality of the composition. If safety and convention can be classified as tonal and diatonic, Carmen’s chromaticism ‘threatens the world of rational order and control’ and this is strongly evident immediately after Don José’s strongly diatonic and typically Romantic aria, La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, which is answered by Carmen with the tritone. Semiotically, the tritone (or augmented fourth) is the primary interval of dissonance in Western harmonic theory, symbolic of diabolus in musica, and so indicative of Carmen’s social standing in challenging contemporary convention; the ‘demon’.
Despite the fact this musical representation of a challenge to convention seems like a strong feminist action, it unfortunately gives a musical reason why Carmen will eventually have to submit to the patriarchy of operatic convention, dying at the hands of her lover, Don José. In accordance with the theory of musical semiotics, ‘absolute closure’ is synonymous with diatonic cadence, which is musically impossible with Carmen’s ‘harmonic promiscuity’.
According to Clemént though, looking at this through a structuralist perspective makes this acceptable within the framework of feminist criticism. In the aria in which she prophesises her death, En vain pour eviter les réponses amères, Carmen voices a ‘revolutionary proclamation of a woman who chooses to die before a man decides it for her’. This is particularly evident through the use of foreboding word-play in the original French lyrics. When spoken, or sung, ‘la mort’ (death) and ‘l’amour’ (love) are indistinguishable; so highlighting Carmen’s realisation that in this circumstance, the two are inseparable, with a man’s love as the ultimate cause of her death.
In conclusion, by considering a dramatic piece through the focus of several theoretical frameworks, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the latent content and historical contexts. As indicated with a feminist, new historical and semiotic analysis of Carmen, a seemingly simple story of a Gypsy temptress, becomes a vehicle for feminist protest, the power of patriarchal society, the development of the operatic form and the racist views of 19th Century society. By applying a strong focus on specific areas of the performance, the thematic nerve-centres are revealed, which creates a wider appreciation of all aspects of the performance; in starting with a narrow focus, the analysis builds to encompass a wider range of themes, and therefore understanding.