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Bizet: Carmen, Chorus of Cigarette Girls

Can you guess this piece? Here’s a hint: smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em…

Changing standards, along with its acquiring the dusty label of “masterpiece,” have hardened our modern tastes to the scandalous nature of Bizet’s “Carmen.” The portrayal of crime, murder, sexuality were unheard of at the middle-class, family-friendly Theatre Operá-Comique, where “Carmen” premiered in 1873. Also shocking would have been the portrayal of females smoking. Act I is set outside a working-class cigarette factory in Seville, where the female workers gather at break-time to get their nicotine fix. Cigarette factory girls (always of disreputable-yet-alluring variety) were, oddly enough, a common trope in French literature portraying an exoticized Spain. While other aspects of the story were adapted more freely, the cigarette factory itself came straight out of the source story by Prosper Merimeé.

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