Human Flower Project

Carmen: Red Hot, Yellow Acacias

The original bad girl, Bizet’s gypsy heroine, casts a floral spell, but why do opera productions always get her bewitching blossom wrong?

imageFrancesca Zambello as Carmen, Royal Opera House, 2008

Photo: Telegraph

Seeing the opera Carmen for the first time this past Friday, we met Amy Winehouse’s great-great grandmother.  The lady with churning hips and long black hair, on the loose while her boyfriend keeps winding up in jail, first came along 150 years ago. Georges Bizet was inspired to compose his opera after reading of this femme fatale in Prosper Merimee’s novella published in 1845. Look out!

‘’She was wearing a very short red skirt which revealed white silk stockings with more than one hole in them, and dainty red morocco leather shoes tied with flame-colored ribbons. She wore her mantilla lowered in order to show off her shoulders and a big bouquet of acacia at the opening of her blouse. She also had an acacia flower in the corner of her mouth, and she walked swaying her hips like a filly on a Cordova stud farm.”

—from Prosper Merimee’s Carmen

That flower, as opera buffs know, has its own role in the drama.

imageFranco Corelli as Don Jose, in jail,

in love with the wrong woman

(and holding the wrong flower)

Photo: Sandy’s Opera Gallery

A squadron of French soldiers, stationed in Sevilla, Spain, is killing time outside a cigarette factory. The working girls come out for a smoke break, and all the guys go apoplectic for the brash and gorgeous Carmen. She winks and sings, sidling up to a few of them. After teasing the whole regiment, she at last tosses her “acacia” flower to a standoffish sergeant, Don Jose, who tucks the blossom inside his uniform.

He’s a goner, of course. Carmen soon gets into a nasty girlfight (marvelously staged by Austin Lyric Opera, with many fistsful of convincing hair-pulling). The smitten Don Jose helps her escape arrest, and for his trouble gets thrown in prison.

In Act II, our hero is released and finds Carmen dancing on tabletops and flirting with a bullfighter in a bar on the edge of town. He prepares to tell her off – or worse—but reaching inside his coat, pulls the blossom out. (In last Friday performance, it was a pink fragile thing that shattered right on cue.) And so begins his aria.

La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,

Dans ma prison m’était restée.

Flétrie et séche, cette fleur

Gardait toujours sa douce odeur…

The flower that you tossed to me

Stayed with me in my prison.

This flower, withered and dry,

Never lost its sweet perfume.

As Don Jose clutches his flower and pledges his love, Carmen gazes off. For the first and only time in the drama, she seems concerned, maybe confused is more like it, confused by tenderness.

imageAcacia retinoides:

relative of Don Jose’s floral love charm

Photo: Floracyberia

Meanwhile, we ask, what is a red flower doing on stage? Acacia blooms are bright yellow!

From looking around, it seems a very common mistake by the props managers for this opera. Carmen’s temper and the Andalusian setting make red roses or carnations the obvious choice, that is to say, cliché.

But acacia, often called “mimosa” in southern France, has a lot more to offer here than mere faithfulness to Merimee’s story.

In the 19th Century, when both the fictional and operatic “Carmens” were born, several species of acacia were imported from Australia to Southern France and became hugely popular both as landscape plants and cut flowers. Hundreds were planted as ornamentals around the homes of wealthy English and Parisian vacationers, who escaped to the Cote d’Azur in winter. Happily the mimosas bloomed as early as December, a relief from all that gray.


A wreath of acacia in Provence, along the Mimosa Trail

Today’s travelers in Provence take the Mimosa Trail in February through Rayol Canadel, Ste. Maxime, and Tanneron (a major acacia growing center) to Cannes Mandelieu (Merimee’s old stomping grounds), and finally the perfume industry capitol of Grasse.

As well as scenting Don Jose’s uniform, acacia farnesiana is the major ingredient in many perfumes, among them Mimosa pour Moi, and L’Eau d’Azur. “Fragrances in which mimosa plays a vital part, but is not the main theme of the fragrance, include Farnesiana by Caron, Chanel Nº 5, Moment Suprême by Jean Patou, ... Paris by Yves St Laurent, Byzance by Rochas, Amarige by Givenchy as well as Summer by Kenzo.” One source describes the acacia scent as “sweet, heady, almondy.”

imagePlacido Domingo sings Don Jose’s aria in Carmen, with faux acacia blooms, in a 1978 production by the Vienna State Opera, filmed by Franco Zefferelli

If you’d like to hear what melted Carmen’s heart (temporarily), here are a few fine tenors singing “La Fleur que Tu M’Avais Jetee” (The Flower Song). Jussi Bjorling clutches a rose bud. Franco Tenelli fumbles something red. But, here is Placido Domingo in 1978, performing with the Vienna State Opera AND some round yellow flowers, acacia at last. Leave it to the Austrians to get the flowers right! Bravo.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/20 at 09:54 PM


Hi Julie, wonderful post about acacia and Carmen.  I have heard of the fragrance of that flower, but have never had the pleasure.  I always associate Carmen with a red rose, for some reason.  That is what is normally shown on photos.  Thanks for setting us straight.

Posted by Frances on 04/21 at 05:41 AM

Great post, but…um… the first plant pictured isn’t an Acacia.  It’s Parkinsonia aculeata.  Acacias have tiny flowers in pom-pom or bottle-brush arrangements.  The local ones smell of licorice.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/21 at 10:13 AM

Thank you so much for writing, Frances and Monique. Wonderful to have your correction, Monique. I’ll pop an acacia in that spot. Really appreciate the botanical help, and encouragement from both of you!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/21 at 10:59 AM

Bouquets of red roses are given on Valentine’s Day to celebrate love, while yellow roses are linked to friendship.  Interestingly, on the website called The Language of Flowers, acacia is associated with “secret love.”


Posted by Georgia on 04/21 at 09:07 PM
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