In 2012, I was commissioned by the venerable and storied Spanish institution, Teatro de la Zarzuela de Madrid, to compose a new score to a film that was, in essence, lost. Having restored the original Hugo Riesenfeld compilation in 1995, I was happy to finally get the chance to compose my own “send up” of the original, just as Chaplin did to DeMille in 1915. And to premiere it in this famous theater, all the better.
My view was to put Bizet through the Chaplin grinder and see what came out. Every composer who adapts overtly famous music for comic purposes, runs the very real danger of sounding like Spike Jones. This had to be avoided at all costs. As genius as the City Slickers were, it goes against all Chaplin musical philosophy: Comedy is killed by comic music. Therefore it was my intention that the music had to be treated somewhat seriously, without indignation, but letting the color of the “period” orchestration do the comic work for me. In other words, I did not want to write a “Carmen foxtrot”, but rather something what City Lights could have sounded like if Chaplin had used Bizet's La Habanera, instead of Padilla's La Violetera.
My orchestrational model being, in fact, City Lights, my efforts were focused towards hearing the Bizet through 1920's ears, somewhat like a hotel-orchestra arrangement. Granted, there is something unsettling about “modernizing” Carmen and utilizing instruments like a sousaphone or banjo, but it does seem to underline the fact that Bizet's music can live, and survive (I hope), through all forms of loving mistreatment.
The orchestration for the Burlesque on Carmen is: piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass-clarinet, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, 2 cornets, trombone, sousaphone, piano, celesta, percussion, banjo, 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos, and contrabass.