b Paris, October 25, 1838; d Bougival, June 3, 1875
Georges Bizet’s short career was primarily devoted to opera, reaching a remarkable climax in 1875 with Carmen. This now-famous opera followed a succession of complete and incomplete works that had no great success in Bizet’s lifetime. Only six operas survive in a performable text.
Bizet’s childhood was steeped in music. His mother, Aimée, was the sister of François Delsarte, who would become famous for his development of singing and acting technique. It was at his home where Aimée met her future husband, Adolphe Bizet, also a music teacher. Young Georges entered the Paris Conservatoire in October 1848, just before his tenth birthday. He developed extraordinary gifts as a pianist and score-reader and won prizes for both piano and organ playing. Among his earliest works from the mid-1850s was Le Docteur Miracle, a comic opera in the Italian style. It was composed for a competition offered by Jacques Offenbach’s Bouffes-Parisiens theater, for which he shared first prize. Soon after, Bizet won the prestigious Prix de Rome, and while in Italy, he composed Don Procopio, the first of a series of yearly submissions expected by the Académie.
In compliance with a related subsidy, the Opéra-Comique was required to produce works by Prix de Rome winners. When Bizet returned from Italy in 1860, the theater commissioned him to write La guzla de l’émir, which was put into rehearsal but then withdrawn when the composer received a much more promising offer from the Théâtre Lyrique for Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). No music for La guzla de l’émir survives, but documents from the Académie suggest that the famous duet in Act I of Pêcheurs was salvaged from it.
Although admired by many, Les pêcheurs de perles was not well received by the press, and dropped out of the French repertoire until after Bizet’s death. Léon Carvalho, director of the Théâtre Lyrique, reaffirmed his faith in Bizet by commissioning a grand opera with a libretto Gounod had abandoned, Ivan iv. Carvalho’s repeated postponements, however, drove Bizet to offer the piece to the Opéra, where it was rejected.
Several years of financial difficulty followed, and the composer was forced to arrange transcriptions for publishers Choudens and Heugel in order to support himself. He had kept up his piano skills (which had at one time drawn attention from the virtuoso Franz Liszt) and served as rehearsal pianist for various occasions. By 1867, Bizet had become engaged to Geneviève, daughter of the famed composer Fromental Halévy, but her family postponed the marriage for two years because of his reduced economic circumstances.
Bizet had signed another contract with Carvalho for La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth), inspired by the current rage for operas based on the writings of Sir Walter Scott. The new work finally reached the stage in December 1867, where it played for 18 performances – again too few to ensure a Parisian revival in the composer’s lifetime.
In the ensuing years, several projects proposed for the Opéra-Comique came to nothing. Of these, only Clarissa Harlowe and Grisélidis survive in draft. Djamileh, however, was produced in 1872, and in the same year, Bizet composed incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s drama L’arlésienne. Bowing to the recent trend for Oriental themes, Djamileh still failed to please its audience and was withdrawn after a short run. L’arlésienne passed without notice, though it would later become a popular concert piece. The Opéra-Comique next commissioned a full-length opera, set to text by the notable team of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (Geneviève’s cousin), which would become Carmen in 1875. Bizet still dreamed of producing a work at the Opéra and found time to compose Don Rodrigue (inspired by Guillém da Castro y Bellvís’ Las mocedades del Cid) after production of Carmen had been delayed. But the old Opéra burned down on October 28, 1873, and the composer would not be able to achieve this ambition during his brief existence.