The Metropolitan Opera Guild

Teaching Materials

The Basics: Introducing Your Students to Opera

Introducing Your Students to Opera


What is an Orchestra?


What is Opera?


Introducing a Specific Opera.


Additional Ideas.


What is an Orchestra? · Brainstorm with your students about what an orchestra is.

· Make a semantic map: put suggested words around the board as the students brainstorm.

· Have students justify their ideas.

· Discuss the instruments and classification of instruments in the orchestra.

· Introduce how the orchestra is arranged, using a diagram for illustration.

· Using words in the semantic map, have students write a composition on what an orchestra is.

What is Opera? 

· Brainstorm with your students about what an opera is. What stereotypes have they heard?

· Discuss how opera singers' voices are not amplified and how singers must project.

· Introduce the voice parts and operatic singing.

· Make a chart of the voice parts from high to low.

· Play examples of different voices and have students brainstorm on the character's personality.

· Discuss typical roles of different voice parts. (ie. Soprano is often the heroine, Bass is often evil.)

· With the class, choose a current movie or tv show and assign each character a voice part.

Introducing a Specific Opera 

· Start by introducing the characters of the opera and their voices.

· Tell a little bit about the story through the characters.

· Ask students for adjectives to describe the characters.

· Using their adjectives, ask students to write character analyses.

· Using character analyses, have students write their own story before learning the full synopsis.

· Use the students' stories to then introduce the full synopsis.

· Ask students to draw a picture of the opera's setting as it is described in the libretto.

· Have students read the libretto aloud as play. Stop periodically to review what has happened.

· As you progress through the libretto, listen to the music from different sections of the opera.

· Point out how the music highlights the drama.

· How does the music convey characters' emotions?

· Play each character's introductory aria. Does it match their character analyses?

· Have students draw a picture of their favorite character in appropriate costume.

· Have students draw a picture of their favorite scene.

· After studying each act, ask students to predict what will happen next.

· Before teaching them the end of the story, ask students to write their own endings.

Additional Ideas 

· After each class, have students summarize the story covered that day.

· Have students research the composer and librettist.

· Have students research the time of the opera (ie., ancient egypt, gypsies, Paris, etc.).

Teaching Materials

Using Carmen to Teach Music



Motivation/Role Play Exercises


Recurring motifs


Use of rhythm


Recurring Motifs:


The most important recurring motif in Carmen is the "Fate" motif first introduced in the Prelude. This occurs in the coda of the Prelude. It is a 5-note phrase with an exotic interval of an augmented 2nd punctuated with 2 deep thuds. (See example #1). This motif will be repeated in various permutations at crucial moments in the opera.

This motif repeats again in the following places:"Habanera" - Before Carmen's aria begins, the music which introduces her uses a diminution of the "fate" melody. (See Example #2).

At the end of the aria, as Carmen stares at Don Jose, the soldier she has had her eye on all along, the "fate" motif appears most prominently in the cellos under tremolo upper strings to set destiny in motion. (See Example #3)

In Act II, when Don Jose tries to prove that he still loves Carmen, to the accompaniment of the "fate" motif in the oboe, he takes out the flower that she threw him in Act I.

In Act III, just before it is Carmen's turn to deal her ill-fated deck of cards, the "fate" motif is played in diminution to set up her aria which foretells her impending doom.

At the end of Act III, Don Jose must take leave of Carmen to go to his dying mother. He knows by now that Carmen has another lover in Escamillo. The "fate" motif peels out in full force by the French horns just as Escamillo goes off singing a reprise of his "Toreador Song."

In the final scene, the "fate" melody is played fortissimo 6 times by the full orchestra to hammer home with finality what began as a coda in the opening Prelude.

Another recurring motif is the very opening of the Prelude to Act I which represents the procession of the bullfighters and occurs again in Act IV when the bullfighters enter. (See Example #4).

Another recurring motif is the main theme of the "Toreador Song." It is heard first as Theme C of the Prelude. It comes back most prominently in Escamillo's aria in Act II, as an ironic twist at the end of Act III when Escamillo invites Carmen to see him in his next bullfight, and recurs in Act IV at his entrance just before the bullfight. (See Example #5).

In the 2 scenes with Micaela, the girl from back home, whenever there is a reference to Don Jose's mother, there is an expressive, rising, stepwise, legato melody. (See Example #6). This first occurs in Act I when Micaela comes looking for Don Jose and recurs in Act III when she tells him that his mother is dying.

Use of Rhythm:


"Habanera" - Bizet's use of rhythm, particularly Spanish rhythms, is very important in Carmen. One of the first important places where this occurs is in Carmen's opening aria, known as "Habanera." This is a case where the music itself is so famous and catchy that it can be its own motivation. Play the opening rhythm (it occurs 4 times). It is a 4-note tango rhythm, with the 2nd note shorter than the others (see Example #7).

The melody is a snake-like, slivering, descending chromatic melody which shows Carmen's seductive and sultry nature. She can have any soldier she wants. But she is free as a bird and will choose the man who least notices her. After Carmen sings the opening melody, the soldiers repeat her melody while she seductively interposes "L'amour" 3 times. The main theme is a descending melody in the key of D Minor while the 2nd part of her aria is basically ascending in the parallel key of D Major. The soldiers punctuate her melody with "Prends garde a toi" (You'd better be on guard") to the exact 4-note tango rhythm mentioned above. This entire process is repeated for a second verse. (see Example #8)

"Seguidilla" - This is the scene introduced in the opening motivation. Carmen has been arrested and Don Jose has been assigned to guard her. By promising to meet him, drink with him and dance with him at the inn of Lillas Pastia, she seduces Don Jose into letting her go includes the characteristic Seguidilla rhythm and the main melody (see examples #9 and #10). Just like the "Habanera" rhythm had a characteristic rhythm, so too does the "Seguidilla." In the "Habanera's meter of 2, there were 4 notes, with the 2nd note shorter than the others and close to the 3rd note. So too the "Seguidilla" rhythm has 4 notes (although in a meter of 3) with the 2nd note close to the 3rd. The 3rd and 4th notes of the rhythmic motif are the same. When heard as the accompaniment in the strings, it sounds like a Spanish guitar from southern Spain from where the Seguidilla dance originated (see example #9).

Example 10 "Toreador Song"- There are 2 main melodies in this number: the first melody, in F minor, with its characteristic accompanying Spanish rhythm (see example #11) describes the bullfight, and the second melody (see example #5) is the march-like "Toreador" refrain, heard earlier in the Prelude which hints of the girl that is waiting for him after the bullfight is over. The gypsies, along with Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes repeat this "Toreador" refrain. There is then a second stanza in the same manner as the first except that at the end, Carmen's 2 gypsy friends then Carmen flirt with Escamillo on the words "L'amour."

"Song of the Castanets" - This excerpt includes Carmen singing a "la, la, la," rhythm to the accompaniment of castinets while trumpets are playing a bugle call in the background as a countermelody. This represents Don Jose's dilemma: should he stay with Carmen or go back to barracks? This is a perfect example of how counterpoint in the music directly reflects counterpoint (or conflict) in the drama. (See example #12.)

Teaching Materials

Motivation/Role Play Exercises

Opening Motivation


Bring in some string or cord and loosely tie up the hands of a girl in class saying she did something terribly wrong and has to be sent to the principal's (dean's) office for punishment. Ask a guy to escort her. Ask the girl what she could say or do to get him to release her. Have them engage in a creative dialogue and see where it leads. Have a 2nd and 3rd pair of students try it as well. (This is the turning point in Act I where Carmen pursuades to let Don Jose release her as she sings the "Seguidilla" promising to meet him at the inn of Lillas Pastia.)

Additional Motivations:


"Prelude" - Motivation - Since the Prelude is in rondo form (ABACA), set up 3 different colored blocks, 1 for each of the main melodies. Reserve a black block for the coda.

Theme A - Represents the procession of the bullfighters

Theme B - Transitional theme

Theme C - Represents the hero, Escamillo, later to be heard as the "Toreador Song"

Coda - "Fate" motif, a germinal motif which occurs throughout the opera and which will be illustrated later.

"Toreador Song" - Motivation - Ask the class to picture the following scene: They are hanging around the corner store with a few of their friends when the most famous athelete in (name a sport) shows up. How would they react? You might include names like Shaquille O'Neal in basketball or Sammy Sosa in baseball, etc. Excamillo was the equivalent hero in Spain.

"Song of the Castanets" - Motivation - (This scene is the turning point of the story). The class is presented with a scenario, one from the male point of view and one from the female point of view. They should write, or orally engage in a short dialogue using these scenarios. Allow for more than one presentation.

Male: You are on the school football (basketball, baseball, etc) team. Practice starts at 4:00 P.M. You are at your girlfriend's house. It is 3:55 P.M. Your teammates are outside yelling for you to come down. If you miss practice, you will be thrown off the team. What do you do? Write a dialogue (or orally engage in a dialogue) with your girlfriend in a possible scenario that might occur.

Female: Your boyfriend who is on one of the school teams is visiting you after school. Practice starts in 5 minutes. You know that if he misses practice he will be thrown off the team. Yet you want him to stay with you. Write a dialogue (or orally engage in a dialogue) with your boyfriend in which you try to convince him to stay.

"Card Trio" - Motivation - Bring in a deck of cards. Set up a small table with 3 girls gathered around, Carmen in the center. The other 2 girls are Frasquite and Mercedes, her gypsy friends. Prearrange the deck so that the 2 gypsy friends get hearts and diamonds and Carmen gets the ace of spades, which represents death.

"Final Duet" - Motivation - Bring in a plastic knife and a ring, which can easily be removed and thrown away. Using the text from the libretto, 2 students should read the text, in English, of the final confrontation between Don Jose and Carmen using the knife and ring as props at the appropriate places. Point out the juxtaposition between the killing of the bull inside the arena, unseen by the audience, at the same time that the audience sees Don Jose stab Carmen.

Teaching Materials

Using Carmen to Teach Humanities





Questions for Discussion and Writing


Projects and Further Study





It was Bizet who, in 1873, had the idea of extracting an opera libretto from the admirable novella of Merimee. Meilhac and I immediately shared his feelings ... I went to see Leuven [co-administrator of the Opera-Comique] and he actually interrupted me after the first sentence. "Carmen! Merimee's Carmen! Isn't she killed by her lover? And these bandits, gypsies, and girls working in a cigar factory! At the Opera-Comique! The family theater, the theater of wedding parties ... You'll frighten our audience away. That's impossible." I insisted and explained to Mr. Leuven that ours was a Carmen, to be sure, but a toned-down, softened Carmen, and that we had actually introduced some characters perfectly in keeping with the style of the opera comique, especially a young girl of great chastity and innocence. There were indeed gypsies, but of the humorous variety (they really weren't). And Carmen's death, the inevitable catastrophe at the end, would be sneaked in somehow at the conclusion of a lively and brilliant act, in broad daylight, on a holiday filled with processions, dances and gay fanfares. Mr. Leuven acquiesced, but after a prolonged struggle. And when I left his office, he said: "Please try not to let her die. Death at the Opera-Comique. That's never happened before, do you hear, never. Don't let her die, I implore you, my dear child." ... (Ludovic Halevy, co-librettist of Carmen) The cardinal aspect of opera comique, as distinct from Grand Opera, has always been noted, but its importance has not been sufficiently emphasized. The alternation of stretches of spoken dialogue with ensembles or arias was vital to the structure of the libretto and of the opera. In an atmosphere as sentimentally charged as that of nineteenth-century opera, the opportunity for expansion in dialogue was necessary: it not only fleshed out the stick figures of the arias but also provided a measure of Gallic irony in the give-and take of the conversation, which undercut the meanings of the verse ... The importance of the spoken dialogue in opera comique is revealed whenever Bizet's Carmen is correctly performed ... The use of prose dialogue and its emphasis on the singing actor rather than the acting singer was reinforced by the theatrical devices of melodrame and pantomime which were an integral part of French nineteenth-century opera. This in turn led to a further refinement of the habit: the actual singing of dialogue rather than speaking it over music. What this development accomplished was to soften the staticity of the "number" arias and ensembles and give them a measure of musical drama ... this refinement reached its expressive peak in the final scene of Bizet's Carmen. The great confrontation between Carmen and Jose is, in effect, sung melodrame ... (Patrick J. Smith) The reasons for preferring the dialogue, apart from the fact that this is how Bizet set the work, are obvious: first, dialogue tells you more about the characters in less time than recitative -- for instance, we should be told at the beginning that Jose is repressed and given to violence; second, the suppression of the dialogue also suppresses one vital facet of Carmen's character -- her humor ... third, the incidence and length of the passages of dialogue are all part of the work's classically perfect structure; fourth, Guiraud's recitatives are dreadful. (Rodney Milnes) Almost from the time of their arrival in Spain, the gitanos were accused of every conceivable crime. They desecrated holy images; they had sold stolen children into African slavery; they were enemies of the state in the pay of the Moors ... Continually hunted and persecuted, Carmen's ancestors forged their own laws. They preyed on non-gitanos everywhere, robbed them on the highways, destroyed fields and villages, and poisoned their cattle. They practised sorcery; their women, who pretended to possess occult powers since prehistoric times, by exercise of wit learned to read character or even thought, but truth and deception became indistinguishable. They disregarded human life and property completely outside the leis prala, the law of the brotherhood, and turned into cruel avengers ... There is no need to marvel at the evil in Carmen's soul. It does not take much imagination to think up what she may have been or done as a child. She is a typical product of heredity and environment. ... the Spanish gitano is known for his extraordinary dancing. Much Spanish music and many Spanish dances are of gitano origin. Here, then, is the reason for Carmen's tantalizing airs and dances. Her forefathers' history is rich with musical rhythms, but it is also full of misery. There is much evil, and Carmen, as a true child of gypsy tradition, continues to perpetuate it ... (Ruth Berges) Carmen is an opera, like Cosi fan tutte, in which the passing of time has affected audience reaction. Until comparatively recently the protagonist would have been considered a sluttish femme fatale who destroyed a decent, upright soldier; today, perhaps, we might regard her as an honest ... and liberated woman murdered by a maternally dominated psychopath. There are many shades of emphasis between these two extremes ... Micaela's is perhaps the most misunderstood role. She is emphatically no milksop; she must suggest her role as mother-substitute while showing peasant wit in the first act and peasant strength in the third ... To his fatuity ... Escamillo must add the Toreador's cruelty if he is allowed the whole of the third act duet (few are) and an element of glossily packaged, supermarket sex-appeal ... (Rodney Milnes) Carmen is equally superstitious about the sacred book which pre-empts her. Life, she believes, is scored. The cards are pitiless ... Mercedes and Frasquita read in the cards only what they want to find there: prophecies of love and money. Carmen interprets them more strictly, and resigns herself to their agenda for her ...(Peter Conrad) he's a liberated woman, she makes the rules, and like great actresses she speaks of herself in the third person, especially as she nears the end. She's a merry and obsessive lover, but a sad and gluttonous one too, and death more than lust seems her dish. At the hour of her suicide -- what else can you call it? -- Carmen seems fed up. Why? Music explicates where psychoanalysis fumbles ...

(Ned Rorem) Yesterday -- would you believe it? -- I heard Bizet's masterpiece for the twentieth time ... each time I heard Carmen it seemed to me that I was more of a philosopher, a better philosopher than at other times: I became so forbearing, so happy, so Indian, so settled ... And finally love, love translated back into Nature! Not the love of a "cultured girl" -- no Senta-sentimentality. But love as fate, as a fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel -- and precisely in this way Nature! The love whose means is war, whose very essence is the mortal hatred between the sexes! I know no case in which the tragic irony, which constitutes the kernel of love, is expressed with such severity, or in so terrible a formula, as in the last cry of Don Jose with which the work ends: "Yes, it is I who have killed her, I -- my adored Carmen!" Such a conception of love (the only one worthy of a philosopher) is rare: it distinguishes one work of art from among a thousand others. For, as a rule, artists are no better than the rest of the world, they are even worse -- they misunderstand love. Even Wagner misunderstood it. They imagine that they are selfless in it because they appear to be seeking the advantage of another creature often to their own disadvantage. But in return they want to possess the other creature ... (Friedrich Nietzsche) The most feminist, the most stubborn of these dead women is Carmen the Gypsy, Carmen the damned. Just the same, this woman who says no will die too. This woman who makes decisions all alone, while all around her the men keep busy with their little schemes as brigands and soldiers. She is the very pure, very free, Carmen. My best friend, my favorite. have always heard permanent ridicule heaped on this opera; no music has been more mockingly misappropriated. Toreadors, blaring music, and a gaudy Spain ... They always forget the death ... Holiday in Seville. Caught in the crowd, Carmen is all dressed up like a lady -- Carmen the Gypsy. Therefore, somewhat whore, somewhat Jewess, somewhat Arab, entirely illegal, always on the margins of life ... Carmen is no more a Gypsy than Butterfly is a Japanese woman. All we have are images comparable to those tourist dolls we bring back from our trips, limited stereotypes of women whom we have not met... Bitch. That is what the right-thinkers of the world call her. But what does she do? She acts like a man, that is all ... She has been forbidden to speak, so she sings ... Jose has only one thing to say: "Be quiet! I told you not to talk to me." They all say that. So Carmen stands up and sweetly sings the rebellious words: "I am not talking to you, I am singing for myself, and I am thinking: it is not forbidden to think." This is what all women say. But yes, it is forbidden for women to think in this stifling Europe where they are just barely beginning to take off. And singing for oneself when one is the prisoner of a young corporal is making eyes at him. Thinking is seducing ... Now we see her at the gates of the arena, where she will not enter. You could say she asked for it ... Everything is peaceful when Jose surprises her and prevents her from passing. He prevents; he is a man. He ties her up; he loves her; he shackles her ... She says no. No again. No! She does not want him, does not love him anymore. He is bleating and he is dangerous, he repeats over and over: "There is still time ... There is time to save yourself and to save me with you." Ah, here is the naked truth: what has to be saved is the man's image, damaged by pure and simple jealousy, that can bring on all the deaths in the world ...(Catherine Clement)


1. Carmen is one of the most complex characters in all opera. Evil? Seductress? Bitch? Free spirit? Feminist? Victim? Suicide? Death-obsessed? Sensualist? Joker? Tragic heroine? All of the above? None? Give your assessment.
2. The other central figures are also more than merely stock characters, and merit analysis.
3. Character analyses lead to the kind of question raised by Milnes: how does our perception of what happens in this work differ from the way people may have seen it a century ago, and why?
4. Speaking of our modern perception of the work, Clement and Rorem take a feminist position on Carmen. Extend their arguments -- or refute them.
5. Nietzsche claims that this work reveals a true understanding of the nature of love. Do you agree?


1. Berges gives a glimpse of the history of Gypsies. Do additional research, and ask yourself whether Carmen gives an accurate portrayal of this ethnic group.
2. Carmen was originally an opera comique with extensive spoken dialogue, but Guiraud eliminated dialogue and substituted recitatives of his own composition. There are many other complications in the editorial history of Carmen. Read about this issue; listen to recordings of various versions (the EMI recording conducted by Fruhbeck de Burgos uses the edition of the 1875 premiere, for example); listen to the broadcast to determine what kind of edition is currently used at the Met; and evaluate the merits and drawbacks of these various versions.
3. Conduct a trial of Don Jose for his crimes, with a prosecution, defense, judge, and jury.
4. Bullfighting figures prominently in this opera. Study the history and conduct of bullfighting in Spain, and its cultural significance. Explore its use in art and literature, notably in the stories and novels of Hemingway.
5. Carmen has been frequently adapted. A Broadway version called Carmen Jones, using Bizet's melodies but updating the setting, was filmed and released on video. Rosi's film of the opera is visually striking and features a strong performance of the title role. There were even silent film versions! Ballet stagings include one by Roland Petit, available in the dance anthology film Black Tights. Watch some of these adaptations, and evaluate them.
6. Carmen is not, of course, a Spanish opera, but a French one. The fascination that Spain holds for French artists has produced many significant works. Think, for example, of "Bolero" and several other pieces by Ravel. Explore the history of this phenomenon, and the reasons for it.
7. Merimee's novella is very fine and creates an impression noticeably different from the opera. Read it. (English translations are available, and have been included with some Carmen recordings.)