The Smoke-Free Carmen

Denis Dutton

The Auckland Opera received complaints for its most recent production of Carmen when its advertising posters showed offensive cleavage. In deciding to withdraw the posters, the general manager of Auckland Opera sensibly explained, “It behoved us to find a more imaginative way to sell our product than just to resort to blatant sexist imagery.” In the new ads Carmen had a completely covered chest.

Auckland Opera has taken a step in the right direction of providing a more wholesome, nonsexist Carmen. It is regrettable, however, that other productions continue to promote inappropriate role models and behavioral messages regarding gender relations, animal rights issues, and tobacco consumption. Admittedly, some of these problems are incorrectly dealt with in Prosper Mérimée’s original story. Yet a few minor changes would enable audiences to enjoy the beautiful music of the opera without being exposed to offensive and outdated stereotypes. Herewith, a Carmen for our time:

The first scene takes place in a square in Seville. Young factory workers spill into the street for their morning break of fresh fruit. One of them, the dark Gypsy Carmen, sings a lovely habanera, reminding us that love occurs between all genders, races, and body types. Before returning to the factory, Carmen throws a rose to the Basque soldier, Don José. A fight breaks out between two of the young persons in the factory, and while trying to instruct them on the futility of violence, Carmen is arrested. Don José is ordered to guard her, but she convinces him to allow her to escape, explaining that they are all victims of patriarchal oppression.

The second act opens in the smoke-free environment of a vegetarian restaurant. Carmen and ethnically-diverse friends are enjoying whole-meal buns and spring water when they are interrupted by the wicked Escamillo, a rich and famous bullfighter. Escamillo sings an aria in praise of wine, cigars, thick steaks, and women. This disgusts the young people, although Carmen is strangely attracted to the bullfighter. Don José arrives and, alone at last, he and Carmen vow to live together. They will respect the importance of protected sex and acknowledge each other's unique cultural identity. Don José will do the ironing.

The third act opens in a wild place in the mountains. Carmen, Don José and other members of the Animal Liberation Collective are plotting to end the exploitation of bulls. Don José is enraged when Carmen nobly volunteers to seduce Escamillo, so exhausting him that he will be unable effectively to fight in the bullring. Carmen patiently explains that the lives of many bulls, and the contentedness of cows, is at stake. Escamillo enters and begins a duel with Don José, but the Collective intervenes, insisting that the two men find viable nonviolent means to settle their dispute. The jealous Don José must seek anger-management counselling.

The final scene returns to Seville. Escamillo’s colorful procession enters the bullring. A dishevelled Don José confronts Carmen. He is suffering from low self-esteem. Counselling has only made his anger worse, recovering repressed childhood memories of satanic rituals, where he was forced to drink blood, eat babies, and smoke cheap, unfiltered cigarettes. Acknowledging his trauma, Carmen insists he begin the healing process by getting a bath and a shave. The two lovers embrace and sing a lovely aria, detailing plans to offer workshops in cultural identity and empowerment. The bull wins.


“The Smoke-Free Carmen” is part of a larger project to update and refresh classic operas for a sophisticated, postmodern audience. Other chapters include “Rigoletto, the Story of a Person with Disabilities” and “The Ring of the Nibelung: Breaking the Cycle of Abuse.”