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Carmen illustration, 1875

Carmen’s ‘Cigarette Song’ spirals like smoke into the air. She overturns the moral order…

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– from “The Iconology of Smoking in Turn-of-the-Century Art”

The Western Australian Opera Company has postponed its planned 2015 production of Bizet’s Opera Carmen over worry that it glamourizes smoking.

After pressure from Healthway, a state-based agency that’s promised $400K in funding support for two years, opera administrators decided to bump their scheduled performance of the 1875 opera, part of which takes place in a tobacco factory and features a chorus of “cigarette girls”, because it sends the wrong message to opera patrons. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the decision “political correctness gone mad.”

1897 JOB cigarette paper poster, lithograph by Alphonse Mucha

Of course, the history of opera is filled with all kinds of violence, unhealthy life choices, and general political incorrectness. But Carmen’s depiction of cigarette-loving women whose appetite for smoke was clearly analogous to an appetite for sex, caused a different kind of moral uproar at its 1875 premiere.

Art Historian Dolores Mitchell explores images of cigarettes in early advertising posters reflecting Carmen in her essay, “The Iconology of Smoking in Turn-of-the-Century Art”.

“The first act is dominated by smoking,” writes Mitchell. “Cigarette girls enter the square, and men sing: ‘Look at them! Bold looks, flirting ways! All of them flirting, cigarettes between their teeth.’ The girls sing of love and smoke, their lyrics interweaving erotic allusions and Vanitas references to the ephemeral nature of pleasure.”

The cigarette-smoking operatic heroine won’t be stuck in detention forever in Australia. The Perth-based Western Australian Opera Company plans to launch a production of Carmen in 2017, after their Healthway grant expires.


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Notes in the History of Art, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Spring 1987), pp. 27-33
Ars Brevis Foundation, Inc.