At the changing of the guard, Morales, an officer, informs Don José that a girl named Micaëla has been looking for him. Zuniga, a lieutenant, attempts to engage José in a conversation about the cigarette girls, but he will not be distracted from Micaëla. Carmen and the cigarette girls arrive on the scene. Carmen ignores the soldiers clamoring for her attention and approaches José instead, throwing a flower at his feet. Alone, the corporal admits that Carmen’s flirtation hit its mark. Micaëla appears with a message — and a kiss — from José’s mother. José sends Micaëla back to his mother with a message in kind. He is about to discard Carmen’s flower when a fight breaks out at among the cigarette girls. Carmen, the instigator, is arrested. As José conveys her to prison, she insinuates that he will receive special favor if he facilitates her escape. He gives in.
At Lillas Pastia’s tavern, Carmen learns that José, sent to prison after her escape, has completed his term. The toreador Escamillo approaches Carmen, but she is coy. Two bandits ask Carmen and her friends to accompany them on an adventure; Carmen refuses, telling them she is in love. José appears, and Carmen’s comrades urge her to bring him along. Carmen begins to make her case by dancing for José. At the trumpet call, he tells her he must return to quarters. Carmen, enraged, says that he would follow her if he loved her. José replies that, despite himself, he is overwhelmed with feelings for her. She asks him to prove his love by joining the band of gypsies. He refuses. Zuniga enters and, seeing Carmen and José together, starts a fight. At Carmen’s command, the gypsies converge on Zuniga. José has no choice but to flee with Carmen and her companions.
José. thinking of his mother, confesses his regrets to Carmen. She tells him that fate is master and joins her friends, who are reading their fortunes in the cards. Each time Carmen draws, the answer is the same: Death. Micaëla approaches, summoning her strength for an encounter with José. Escamillo enters and confesses his love for Carmen to José, who challenges him to a duel, which is stopped by Carmen. As Escamillo leaves, he invites Carmen to watch him in the ring. Micaëla is discovered, and she begs José to return to her and his mother. The gypsies encourage him to go, but he is unmoved — until Micaëla tells him his mother is dying. Carmen goes to the bullfight, where she’s confronted by a jealous José in the startling and violent climax.