To anyone who's seen or heard Bizet's opera, the name Carmen is laden with magic. Carmen: the Gypsy enchantress, the forbidden symbol of desire, the femme-fatale who destroys the men she magnetises. She and Don José, the obsessed lover who murders her, are figures of archetypal power, portrayed with sensitivity and conviction by the French author Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870) in the novella on which the opera is based. The myth-like story - besides that unforgettable score - may explain why Carmen has been adapted and transformed more often, and more successfully, than any other opera.
Carmen Jones strides proudly at the head of this parade. Effectively it creates a new classic out of an old one. Our Carmen is a parachute maker, Joe is about to undertake pilot training for the Korean War, and Husky Miller is a prize fighter, his name a delicious adaptation of the toreador, Escamillo, who wins Carmen's love. The lyrics are punchy, the drama convincing, and Otto Preminger's 1954 film helped to bring story and music to a huge new audience.
Not all versions have had such success. Back in 1948, Charles Vidor's The Loves of Carmen, based on Mérimée's story, cast red-haired Rita Hayworth in the title role; Glenn Ford played Don José. The Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco provided a new score; the Bizet was thrown out with the bathwater. The film hasn't proved enduring - perhaps because Bizet's music is so deeply branded into the tale that no Carmen feels complete without it.
In 1967 the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin was asked to write music for a Carmen ballet for his wife, the Bolshoi's leading ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. He transformed music from the opera into a rip-roaring orchestral score, full of tearaway percussion. Its countless clevernesses include the reduction of the ubiquitous Toreador's Song to its accompaniment alone - the audience knows the tune.
The choreographer Matthew Bourne used Shchedrin's suite in his dance adaptation The Car Man for the company Adventures in Motion Pictures, premiered in 2000 and the winner of the Evening Standard Award for Musical Event of the Year. Set in 1950s small-town America, its Carmen is male: a free-spirited, bisexual mechanic who causes sexual ferment, mayhem and tragedy among the local men and women alike.
Without Shchedrin's adaptations, Bizet's score, quintessentially French in many ways, sounds convincingly Spanish - so much so that in 1983 the Spanish film director Carlos Saura updated the action to a Flamenco company. A choreographer, played by the dazzling Antonio Gades, is captivated by the young woman in the leading role of his dance version of Carmen; their story soon mirrors that of their ballet. The soundtrack involves genuine flamenco and genuine Bizet; one sometimes transforms into the other, to stunning effect.
In 2005, another take on Carmen emerged on film, this time from South Africa. Mark Dornford-May's U-Carmen e-khayelitsha was sung in Xhosa, transposing Carmen to a post-Apartheid township with uncanny aptitude. Carmen's lover is a policeman; the Escamillo character is a famous singer; and there's a stunning juxtaposition between Bizet and traditional a cappella South African music. The film scooped the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival 2005 and was selected for the Cannes Film Festival's Tous les Cinemas du Monde.
Most recently, Streetwise Opera ran a project in London called Carmen Electric. This remarkable company works with homeless and formerly homeless people, with the aim that experience of the performing arts should help them to find new skills, confidence and self-esteem. Carmen Electric involved residents from London's Centrepoint, with volunteers from CMS Cameron McKenna and the sound artist Mira Calix. Rap, hip-hop and more raised the roof when they performed the show in May 2006.
Ironically, Carmen's world premiere in Paris in 1875 was not a success; and disappointment over the work's fate is said to have hastened Bizet's death at the age of 36 a few months later. Today, though, the work's appeal is hotter than ever.