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Habanera – The Rebellious Song No One Can Tame

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Habanera is a bold and beautiful statement from the title character of Bizet’s Carmen. She opens with “Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame.” Translations vary describing the bird, but one thing is consistent, no one can tame it.  While the early audiences of Carmen in 1875 were unsure how to receive the complex and controversial characters, the opera has become a standard and Habanera has become its most recognizable aria. The song is intoxicating and rivals any pop song on the radio when it comes to getting stuck in your head.


In the almost 150 years since Carmen debuted there have been countless productions around the world. And like many anchors of art and culture, it has been interpreted and re-imagined into a wide array of contexts. In anticipation of Isango’s return to Boston with their interpretation of Carmen (uCarmen) let’s use Habanera as our guide to explore how this story has been told over the years.



If you’re going to start somewhere, you might as well begin with Maria Callas. The full orchestration is beautiful but hardly noticeable thanks to her fierceness. This is a real master class in bringing life and grit to classical music. Though not known as one of her signature roles, her version of this song is irresistible.



If you haven’t seen Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones than you’ve got some homework to do. The film is an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name from 1943 which featured the music of Bizet with new lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Like many stars in movie musicals, Dandridge is lip syncing to the voice of then up-and-coming opera star Marilyn Horne. Despite not actually singing, Dandridge’s performance of the song is captivating. There’s something so casual and yet completely gripping about her walking through the cafeteria. The singing starts at 1:50 and at 4:07 she orders a mid-aria chicken sandwich. Because she’s a genius.



For many of a certain generation, their first introduction to Carmen came in the form of Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Beyoncé Knowles and Mekhi Phifer produced by MTV in 2001. Unlike the previous two versions, this Habanera does not use Bizet’s score. The signature opening is sampled briefly at the beginning before becoming a beat for the now spoken song. It’s a radical re-imagining and Beyoncé is magnetic. It’s her first acting role and she holds all the confidence and determination of the character set in the 21st century.



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Come and see Isango Ensemble’s interpretation of this timeless classic, which features Pauline Malefane’s beautiful rendition of Habanera. Malefane’s Carmen is a woman living in a male dominated world making the choices she must make to survive – and living with the consequences. uCarmen is set “in a land that somehow borders Spain, France, and South Africa” and is not to be missed.

ArtsEmerson presents Isango Ensemble’s productions of uCarmen and A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Emerson/Culter Majestic Theatre NOV 11 – NOV 22. Tickets available at artsemerson.org or by calling 617.824.8400. 

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1 Comment

  1. I love Maria Callas, she is like: ” As Floria Tosca said it: “Vissi d’ arte, vissi d’ amore” (“I lived on art, I lived on love”).”

    I tried to write a blog about her, see whether you like it: https://stenote.blogspot.com/2017/11/an-interview-with-maria.html


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