Bizet’s reputation rests largely on the abiding popularity of his opera Carmen, but surprisingly the work was not a success at its premiere. Written as an opéra-comique, the audience was shaken by its ambivalent anti-heroine and the tragic ending, and the press rejected it merely as a scandal. It was only after the composer’s early death at the age of 36 that the work was recast as a grand opera with added dialogue, and staked its claim for repertoire status. Bringing a colourful world of gypsy life, bull-fighting, and passionate romance to the stage was highly original, but it was the sun-filled depiction of Mediterranean life that was most influential, as also heard in his incidental music for L’Arlésienne.
Born in Paris, the son of a wigmaker, Bizet’s musical talent took him to the Conservatoire at the tender age of nine, where he soon came to the attention of the French musical establishment with works such as his Symphony in C. Winning a Prix de Rome he spent three formative years in Italy, and on his return to Paris in 1860 set about breaking into the opera scene. Supporting himself through hack editorial work and teaching, he failed to achieve a breakthrough - even The Pearl Fishers with its famous male duet was received indifferently. Disappointed by the failure of Carmen and suffering from a heart condition, Bizet died in 1875, robbing the musical world of a genuine operatic talent.