Carmen: The icon who rolled cigars on her thighs

Step forward Carmen, gypsy and feminist icon
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The Independent Culture

In 1875, composer Georges Bizet's reputation as the toast of Paris was firmly established and it was with justifiable confidence that he opened his latest production at the Opera Comique. His subject was Carmen, a rebellious gypsy tobacco factory worker in early 19th-century Seville who plays fast and loose with lovers and the law and finally pays with her life.

The night proved one of the most embarrassing of Bizet's career. Many in the audience were disgusted by the licentious outspokenness of his protagonist, while purists found the opera diluted, the Spanish gypsy motifs lightweight and unrealistic.

From these inauspicious beginnings, Carmen has become one of the most popular operas of all time. The story – based on a novel by Prosper Mérimée, which in turn is based on the real life of Carmen of Triana – has been adapted for stage, screen, ice and even an MTV Hip-Hopera, starring Destiny's Child's Beyonce Knowles. Ironically, the aggressive, selfish, freedom-loving whore of the novel has been transformed by changing cultural mores and a helping hand from Bizet, into the enduring symbol of exoticised and romanticised Spain. Today she stands as a feminist icon refreshingly unconstrained by stifling social convention.

But next week comes the latest twist in the tale of the famous gypsy with the arrival in London of a new version of the opera by the Andalusian dance-troupe, La Cuadra de Sevilla. The troupe was set up in 1971 by Salvador Tavora – a tiny, 68-year-old Andalusian and one-time bull-fighter – to counter what he believes to be the misrepresentation of Andalusian culture.

A re-working of Carmen was central to his mission: "There have been a thousand versions, all of which have taken a cold, purely artistic view," he says. "It is impossible for [foreigners] to penetrate the lives of the Andalusians of Carmen's class. Before this show, Carmen was simply an opera – one which Andalusians didn't go to, nor did they recognise themselves in it."

Consequently, Tavora's production immerses his audience in the vibrancy and emotional rawness of Spanish culture: "For two hours, we live in Andalusia," he explains.

This Carmen is the product of meticulous historical research – Bizet's matador, for example, has been replaced by a pecador (who fights on horseback), as matadors did not exist in the time of Carmen; similarly the opening scene shows cigar sellers rolling their wares on their naked thighs in accordance with the erotic custom of the time. The production is dance-led, the graceful dynamism of flamenco lending itself well to the romance of the story. The highlight is a scene in which Carmen dances with a white stallion, ridden by her lover, the pecador. The band, on stage throughout the performance, consists of 26 musicians who produce a uniquely mournful sound, implying impending doom.

As well as reinstating an authentic Andalusian flavour, Tavora locates his Carmen firmly within the culture of female cigar sellers: "The story is less about 'her' and more about 'them'," says Tavora.

"The cigar sellers' way of life was revolutionary. These were women who were able to fend for themselves. They didn't need a man – as a cigar seller, Carmen was a symbol of liberation in a very conservative society."

Tavora's motivation was largely inspired by conversations with his great-great-grandmother (she died in 1948, aged 100), herself a cigar seller called Carmen: "Of all the stories I heard from my great-great-grandmother," , remembers Tavora, "there was one that always made me tingle. That was the story about the gypsy cigarrera, who was killed because of her love affair with a pecador. Carmen of Triana led all the uprisings against the social conventions of the time. It is these stories, engraved in my childhood memories, that urged me to reconsider the myth of Carmen."

Re-writing the story was a tall order and it has taken Tavora 30 years to bring his Carmen to the stage: "I wanted to re-write it all my life but it is so difficult. But Seville is where Carmen grew up and this is our Carmen. My great-great-grandmother was my idol and this production is a tribute to her dignity and her suffering as a cigar seller."

'Carmen', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020 7863 8000) tomorrow until 26 February. A new production of Bizet's 'Carmen' is also playing at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212) from Thursday to 10 March